Naomi’s husband, Shalom, sat on the couch and wouldn’t look up. He fingered the fringes of his tzitzit, wrapping them around his forefinger until the skin on the tip turned purple. His name meant peace, as well as hello and goodbye. Naomi thought, He’s never known whether he is coming or going.
“I have nowhere to go,” Naomi whispered. She heard how foreign she sounded, had always sounded, since moving into this Thornhill suburban home four years ago, into this family that had been Canadian for three generations. When she moved here from Hendon, London, she brought with her boxes of PG Tips tea, extra strong, Cadbury chocolates, and Rs that make the ends of her words sound as if they are left open, unfinished. Cah instead of car. Weh instead of where.
“You can stay in the basement. We would never leave you homeless,” the MIL continued. She held Shalom’s hand, as if this were hard for him to say. Except he said nothing. Naomi realized that the couch cushion he was sitting on had a chocolate handprint hidden on the underside. She had turned it a few weeks back when their eighteen-month-old daughter, Sarah, had got into the MIL’s chocolates.
“Shalom will move back into his room,” the MIL said. “You can stay until you find your feet. Of course, Sarah will be looked after. But you are not what we expected.”
The morning after the MIL delivered the separation, Naomi could not stop shaking. When she dropped Sarah at the home daycare before her shift, Bryna said, “You look really pale. Are you all right?”
Bryna had six children of her own and was ten years older than Naomi. As Bryna reached for Sarah, three toddlers behind her started fighting over a riding toy in the living room, which had been blocked off by a pet gate. One leaned over to bite the girl holding the handlebar of the plastic bike made to look like a police motorcycle. The house smelled like Pinesol and sour milk. Naomi backed away as Sarah started crying. Before she could answer, Bryna had already closed the front door, was scolding the biting child loudly enough that Naomi could still hear her.
“In this house, we share!”
During her shift at the kosher Second Cup, Naomi spilled hot chocolate on her hand and yelped. Priscilla, who was also on shift, said, “Run it under hot water before you blister.”
Naomi rinsed her hand under the water and waved to Priscilla who tsked. Priscilla was from the Philippines and doing courses at night to update her nursing qualifications. She had been on a constant climb since entering the country, living first in someone’s dank basement, folding their laundry, making chicken cutlets and steamed vegetables for their kids’ dinner. On her breaks, Priscilla read from her textbooks and wrote practice exams. She’d told Naomi, “My husband and kids will come next year. We will finally be together.”
Naomi took deep breaths and held the second cup under the hot chocolate machine. An elderly man with a tremor, a regular customer, was waiting for the drink in one of the plush seats. She added cold milk to cool the drink down, feeling a pinch in her throat at never having thought to do that before. Priscilla would have. She was good at thinking ahead. Naomi wouldn’t look at her shift-mate. If she did, she might not be able to stop herself from screaming at the sensation that she was falling while Priscilla kept moving higher.
The MIL had wanted Naomi and Shalom to hire a live-in nanny for Sarah.
“You could go back to school,” the MIL had argued to Naomi. “And the girl could also clean while the baby sleeps. Your shifts would cover the cost. You aren’t paying rent.”
These were the signposts Naomi had not considered until now. How she’d argued that night in the basement with Shalom who, of course, took his mother’s side.
“They are very generous. This would be a way for us to give back.”
“We need to save for our own place!”
“Then you need to help out more upstairs. She notices that. She says you hide out down here and you never let her be with the baby.”
It’s because I don’t want to be erased! Naomi wanted to yell, but didn’t. How could she explain the tingling in her fingers when she watched the MIL holding the baby, cooing at her, Who’s Bubby’s girl? How she turned her back on Naomi so that Sarah wouldn’t reach for her. How it didn’t take long for Sarah to be distracted by the MIL’s chunky, silver necklaces, her dangling earrings. And the MIL would say to Naomi without turning around, “You can leave us alone. We’re good.”
Tingling in her fingers, in her toes, crawling up her flesh, as if without Sarah, Naomi was disintegrating. Because of course they were good without her. She’d known for a long time that if she walked out of the house right then, no one would think to chase her down. Her MIL would have stood at the window with Sarah, waving.
At night, Naomi let Sarah fall asleep next to her. Sarah had dried banana in her hair from lunch. Naomi had made a mental note to bathe her in the morning, but the thought was as fleeting as a daydream, as concrete as her plan to call a taxi, bundle her daughter and run to the airport. Her sister in Israel had been texting her all day. Even now, her phone buzzed on the floor beside her bed.
You have rights.
You tell Shalom my husband knows lawyers.
Nae? Where are you? Why won’t you answer?
Naomi sister was named Simi. Her husband called her by her first syllable, Sim. As in simply. Simply wonderful. Simply beautiful. They had five children and they lived in an apartment in Modi’in where they shared Shabbat dinners and lunches with friends in their building. Simply joyous. Simi covered her hair with tie-dyed scarves and wore long, dangling earrings. She had her PhD in genetics. Three years ago, Naomi was nineteen on a gap year in Israel at seminary, dreaming of her sister’s life. When she brought Shalom to meet them he told a joke about Moses and Jesus playing golf and everyone laughed. Afterwards, Simi said, “He fits right in.”
Now, Naomi lay next to Sarah and listened to Shalom and her in-laws stepping back and forth across the main floor. The MIL’s voice was shrill, loud enough that Naomi could hear when she was speaking, but not enough that she could make out the words. Just the tone, high-pitched and overbearing—the one she used when offering excuses. She talks back to me. And you see how she hides the girl. Shalom, that baby doesn’t even look like you. I can’t have a daughter-in-law who makes me a fool. She couldn’t hear if Shalom was responding. He was so soft-spoken. Naomi used to say he centered her.
Now she closed her eyes and said the Shema before going to sleep. Hear O Israel, The Lord Our God The Lord Is One. She was floating in this dark space, saying words she didn’t believe anyone else would hear. This wasn’t a commandment. It was a plea. Please hear me. Please don’t let me fall away.
The next morning, Naomi’s shift started at ten. She mixed Sarah’s cereal with some applesauce and scattered a handful of Cheerios on her highchair tray. Upstairs doors opened and closed. The chime of the alarm system. Someone stamped as they put on their boots. The MIL called out to the FIL about something he was supposed to bring home from the office. The squeal of the automatic garage door, the levers and pulleys stretching and grinding to carry the door up. She listened for Shalom’s soft steps, coming towards the basement door. She kept expecting him to come down the stairs, walking lightly on his toes, his finger to his lips, his other arm outstretched towards her. Tucked in his pocket would be three plane tickets to Israel.
You see, he would say, without even having to speak, I have been saving all this time.
Sarah banged on the tray and her Cheerios jumped like crickets. She laughed and banged again. Naomi put her finger to her lips to shush her, but Sarah flapped her hands in front of her face and shook her head no. And then Naomi realized that everyone upstairs had left. Even Shalom, getting a ride with his father to the subway station rather than taking the bus. Rather than at least coming down to say good morning to Sarah, to even figure out the day. Who will pick her up at day care? What time is dinner? Will you give her bath tonight? I was too tired last night to do it. I had a really bad day. Maybe we could have some time tonight just the two of us? I’m feeling so closed in. Naomi kept looking at the stairs while Sarah shrieked for her attention. Sarah seemed to understand. Hey Mum, remember that separation? Guess what? It starts now.
Naomi dropped Sarah at Bryna’s and remembered to go to the side door and not the front. When she signed Sarah up, Bryna told her no parking on other people’s driveways, and don’t come in and out the front door where everyone can see. I don’t need the neighbors calling me out. The houses on Esther Crescent were built so close together, Naomi could touch the wall of Bryna’s neighbor while waiting for Bryna to open the side door. There were already twenty kids playing in the basement. A tower of blocks fell. Someone had a croupy cough.
Bryna’s teenage sister opened the door. “Sarah! Are you ready to do painting today? And songs at lunch time? She’s so cute. She loves when we play ‘Bum, Bum A-Rolly.’ Has she shown you?”
Naomi peeked inside and saw Bryna changing a diaper on the floor. Another adult downstairs told two girls to share nicely with the dolls. Naomi did the division in her head, the adult to child ratio, and concluded as she did every morning that it’s the loving home environment that counts. She said, “I may be late today, all right? You’ll tell Bryna?”
“Aw-righ,” the girl imitated, but not cruelly. She sighed, “You have the coolest accent.”
Naomi learned from her mistakes. Today she was being extra careful with the hot chocolate. The man with the tremor was back and his wife had ordered him the drink before settling him into one of the plush armchairs while she went to Sobey’s to do her shopping. After paying Naomi for the drink, she handed her a tip, placed it in the palm of her hand, the one that had Naomi burned the day before. The woman said, “For yesterday. I know all this isn’t easy.”
Naomi’s mouth went dry. Did she know? Did everybody know? Was this crazy, insular neighborhood so inward-looking it could see right through her?
“Your hand,” the woman said. “We were so concerned. People don’t appreciate the risks in this kind of work, do they? Anyway, treat yourself. Later today. From the two of us.”
There was a tip jar on the counter, but the woman put her hand over it and shook her head before leaving the café. Priscilla wasn’t looking up, her head bent over her textbook, her hand holding her hair off her face so that it stuck out around her head like a crown. Naomi thought, Priscilla, Queen of the Night School.
As she carried the drink over to the man, Naomi was thinking about missing the Shabbat circle time tomorrow at the Promenade Mall drop-in centre. She didn’t think she could sit amongst the other mums, the nannies, the woman at the keyboard with her frosted big blond hair, her thick Russian-Israeli accent and her mix of Hebrew and English. “Okay, yeladim! Mee rotzeh to be sleeping bunny?” She felt like putting Sarah in her stroller, taking the subway somewhere far out of here, walking in one of those downtown neighborhoods that the morning radio host described as bustling. Was there a shooting in one of them last week? Naomi couldn’t be sure. Parkdale, the Danforth, the Beach. The names all blended together for her as places other people went to. But now, left in the basement like she was, Naomi had the sudden thought: was she other people?
As Naomi set the hot chocolate down on the coffee table in front of him, the man put his trembling hand on her arm and applied pressure as he stood. She lost her balance and with his other hand, he steadied her shoulder. For that moment, they were supporting each other.
“Bathroom,” he whispered. The word came out wet, some spit dribbled out of the side of his mouth. Naomi recoiled; the dribble and the request made her think of the man peeing and suddenly his touch, that thought, it was all too intimate.
“It’s right there. Around the corner,” she told him, backing away. He leaned towards her, his arm outstretched as if they were attached. His face was unevenly shaven, like his uneven speech.
“The corner?” he managed. Naomi nodded and pointed. He smelled like dry mouth. His grey eyes widened as if he were afraid of everything around them.
“I’ll save your spot for you,” she promised him, even though the café was almost empty. “Take as long as you need.”
Priscilla looked up, frowning. The man maneuvered himself around the furniture, dragging his left leg behind him, gripping the backs of chairs, and then the wall. She stood up and walked over to offer him her elbow. He pushed her away, perhaps unintentionally, but Priscilla stepped back and turned towards Naomi, pointing, “He wanted you to help.”
Naomi’s phone pinged. A WhatsApp from Simi. You have to do something.
She was about to tell Priscilla to mind her own business, when the man turned the corner towards the bathroom, wobbled and then fell forward. He called out, “Mawh!” as he went down. His head and torso smacked against the doorframe, the sink, and it sounded like the entire café was crumbling. Naomi’s mouth was still open, prepared to lash out at Priscilla, but instead she said, “Call for help!” As she ran towards him, she thought, Someone else’s world has just collapsed.
Blood pooled on the ground by the man’s head. His mouth was twisted and one eye squeezed shut, as if he didn’t want to see. But then the other was wide open, as if he couldn’t help himself. He couldn’t help himself. Naomi didn’t know where to look. She didn’t know how to breathe. In the background she could hear Priscilla yelling at on the phone, “Yes! An ambulance! Don’t you understand me?”
The man moved his open eye to Naomi’s face and she knelt down towards his lips, which were moving. His breath came out in shallow, fast puffs. He reminded her of a fish on the floor of a boat, begging to be thrown back in the water.
“You’re not alone,” she told him. “I won’t leave you.” And yet, even as she said it, she heard the hollowness of that empty promise. She would leave him. As soon as the paramedics arrived, she would bolt up from her spot on the floor as if tagging them in a sick game of relay. She would move past his wife, who would be standing near the front door, her bags of groceries scattered over the floor, the red sauce from the prepared chicken leaking everywhere.
“You are not alone,” she whispered again, but she knew the words were barely audible. She could barely hear them herself. She held the man’s hand and she counted in her head until she could hear the siren in the distance. Either the siren or maybe Sarah calling for her. Wailing.
“We’re almost there,” she said, this time a little louder. She squeezed the man’s hand and he seemed to breathe slower. Naomi too. Pretty soon she’d be able to leave. Someone swung open the front door. There was yelling and chairs scraping across the floor. Pretty soon she’d have no reason left to stay.
Sidura Ludwig lives in Thornhill, Ontario, Canada. Her novel Holding My Breath was published in 2007 in Canada, the US and the UK. She was most recently a finalist in the 2017 Little Bird Writing Contest. Her work has appeared in Canadian and British publications, as well as on CBC Radio.