Sheitel


by Anna Lea Jancewicz

When Yitzy gets home from work on Friday afternoons, the floors are swept, the challah is baked, and the children are bathed. Their hair smells like shampoo, and it's combed back from their faces neatly, wetly. They clamor at the baby-gate at the top of the stairs when he comes through the front door. They squeal with delight Abba Abba Abba as he pauses to touch the mezuzah and bring his fingertips to his lips.

There's a roasted chicken in the oven, eight pieces with crisp skin, arranged on a bed of sliced mushrooms and bay leaves swimming in olive oil. He wheels his bicycle down to the basement, and as he passes through the kitchen, he gives her a quick kiss, his lips pleasantly dry and warm, or tugs on her apron strings playfully. His beard smells of sawdust.

For this Shabbos, there are fresh green beans simmering on the stovetop. Last Shabbos it was carrots, cut into thick orange coins. The week before, broccoli. The week before that, it was Brussels sprouts thinly sliced, sautéed in a pan. Before that, green beans.

Our sages say that Shabbos exists outside of time, that each day of rest and prayer and peace is but a taste of the World to Come. The Olam haBa is an infinite progression of Shabboses strung together, days perfectly stitched, whole and holy, into one splendid garment. From darkness to darkness like womb to tomb, but stretching much further in both directions, until they wrap around.

If you look far enough, with a telescope strong enough, you'll realize you are viewing the back of your own head.

When everything else is ready, she climbs the stairs slowly, with deliberation, and takes her bath. She likes the water very hot. She dresses, in a black dress, or a blue one. She waits until the very last minute to do the very last thing. It's there, brown waves tumbling around the featureless Styrofoam face, waiting for her. She tucks all her hair into the wig cap and takes it in her hands. Her sheitel.

She's begun to wear it less and less. Now she puts it on only for Shabbos. During the week, she reaches for a tichel instead. She tells Yitzy she's decided to keep it special for Shabbos, and it will last longer that way. We don't have the money to replace it. She tells her girlfriends it's just easier to tie a headscarf and be done with it. And have you seen these gorgeous new tichels Miriam is selling?

What she doesn't tell is that when she wears the sheitel, she hears things.

* * *

She's come to pick up her older daughter from Hebrew lessons when Rabbi Mendlowitz calls to her from his study. His door is open, his books line the walls, deep brown leather with gold embossed alef-beis gleaming on every spine. He beckons with two fingers held aloft, gestures for her to sit.

She's keenly aware that the blouse she's wearing today doesn't quite cover her collar bones. She sits with her arms crossed awkwardly, because she sees, glancing down, that the tattoo on her forearm is peeking from her up-rolled sleeve. It's the letter shin, pinkly inked to nearly match her skin tone, so that it appears to be almost a birthmark. She's never sure whether to be less or more embarrassed by the fact that it's a Jewish tattoo. Either way, it's an indelible remnant of her former life, and a constant cause for suspicion. She is a ba'al teshuvah, after all, not born into the observant life, and she could backslide, God forbid, at any moment.

Rabbi Mendlowitz's black eyes sparkle, and his cheeks are always flushed.

So he says my son tells me your Esther has said something strange to him.

She swallows, and nods. He goes on.

She tells him that God speaks to her. She says that you told her that she can listen and that Hashem will talk to her.

She clears her throat. Well, in a way, yes. Don't you think?

He smiles broadly. No. He shakes his head vigorously, and his payos tremble, the little spiral curls flopping against his reddened earlobes. No, Hashem spoke to prophets, and there are no more prophets. Are you thinking that Hashem has something personal to say to you? This is not so much a Jewish idea.

She tugs at her sleeve. No, no of course not, it's just that I meant for her to know that we should all be listening to that "still small voice"... you know, inside, to figure out what God wants of us...

Rabbi Mendlowitz smiles again, wide enough so that his face is split, honey pouring golden from the rock. Torah! Torah tells us exactly what Hashem wants of us! Voices are for the prophets! Torah! We have Torah to tell us how to live!

Yes she says yes, of course, Rabbi.

He ushers her out of his study with a hand that hovers six inches from her shoulder. She gathers Esther from her classroom and they walk the three blocks home. She thinks the whole way about what she didn't tell him.

Our sages say that when Ya'akov saw the angels, the messengers, ascending and descending the ladder on the banks of the Yabbok, they were ascending first because they are always here, always among us. The man he wrestled with, the man who wrenched his hipbone from its socket, the man he wrestled with when he was alone, was already there.

* * *

Rachel Rosenberg is her best friend, and they are in the supermarket, inspecting packages of plastic-wrapped kosher turkey legs when she finally broaches the subject. She tells her just that she keeps getting a song stuck in her head, a song she used to know, that it might be stress. She doesn't implicate the sheitel.

Rachel raises one diligently groomed eyebrow and her lips swerve with a wicked crook.

Is it... sexy?

No, no she says it's just a Bob Dylan song. He's a poet, practically. He's Jewish, you know.

Well, I don't know from Bob Dylan says Rachel but what's it called?

She replaces a one-pound tube of hamburger meat on the refrigerated shelf and sighs All Along the Watchtower.

Rachel Rosenberg's skirt swishes, the hem dragging on the battered linoleum as they walk down the aisle lined with glass jars in which colorless blobs of gefilte fish brood silently.

Look says Rachel I'm sure it is just stress. You have such a meshugganah life. Why do you want to stay home with the baby, anyway? It's way past time for you to get another job. You need to feel useful. You need to do something with yourself. Why don't you teach again? You're great with the kinderlach.

She laughs through her nose. She doesn't explain. Rachel Rosenberg doesn't know from ironic.

* * *

The tops of Dr. Bloch's breasts are visible today, draped in yellow silk patterned with tiny blue birds. When she smiles, both of her glossy lips curl perfectly into the shape of a little red boat. She keeps getting distracted by the little red boat.

I can't write you a prescription for the Xanax again until you are finished nursing Dr. Bloch says but if you feel like you are experiencing depression, there are options. There are definitely anti-depressants that are considered safe to take while breastfeeding.

She shifts uncomfortably on the exam table, and the paper crinkles loudly beneath her. No, no, it's not depression. It's just anxiety again, I think. I mean, I'm not having panic attacks, not like before I had my gall bladder out. I'm just, well, I have headaches, not really pain, but just pressure, just sometimes. And I feel like I, I don't know, I worry.

She doesn't want to try to fit her sheitel into Dr. Bloch's little red boat. She wonders how many angels could squeeze in there, anyway. It would capsize.

What you could try Dr. Bloch says is taking Benadryl. It's an antihistamine, and that will relieve the stress response just as it relieves an allergic reaction. It's just fine for breastfeeding, and it will help you sleep, too.

But won't an antihistamine reduce my milk supply? she asks. She thinks she's read that somewhere. It dries up fluids.

It may affect it slightly, or it may not. But you have to weigh the risks and the benefits.

Dr. Bloch's little red boat bucks as if on high seas. She uncrosses and recrosses her legs. The skirt is short, the legs are sleek and sheathed in flesh-toned nylon. She wears a thin gold chain as an ankle-bracelet. It shows through the nylon.

The most important thing is that you are well, that you are a happy and healthy mommy. Isn't that right?

Yes, yes, of course, Doctor.

She drives home in the station wagon, and for the first time in a long, long while, she turns on the radio. It's all static, and she jabs at buttons blindly, hoping for a rock and roll station. As she hits the brakes for a stop sign, the song blares out of the back speakers, heavily skewed to treble. All Along the Watchtower. She leans her head against the steering wheel and cries, laughing.

* * *

She gets ready for the mikvah just as carefully as always, even though she hasn't bled in three cycles. Yitzy doesn't know. She switches back and forth between her bed and his right on schedule.

She washes her hair and trims her nails. She scrubs the soles of her feet and shaves her underarms. She soaks in her very hot bath, with no oils or salts. She uses plain soap. She doesn't put on deodorant after, or lotion. She brushes her teeth thoroughly, flosses between. She's as naked as the day she was born, but for the tattoo, the letter shin.

She walks the three blocks to the mikvah in the dark, her hands burrowed deep in her coat pockets. Orion is above her, that's the only constellation she can identify. She's taken two little hot pink Benadryl, and she feels slightly loose in the legs. She walks just a quarter inch above the pavement, her shoes make no sound.

The rebbetzin is waiting for her, a long gray snood bagging her ponytail. These nights, once a month, are the only times she's seen the rabbi's wife without her lovely blond sheitel.

She rinses her body in the shower stall, submits it to the rebbetzin's inspection. The rebbetzin pronounces her ready, free of any dirt or debris or random stray hair that might lodge between God and herself. But the rebbetzin's blue eyes dangle for a moment too long above her belly, swinging like divining pendulums, and they narrow.

Nu? So is it a boy or a girl?

Oh, oh no, I've just put on a little weight she stammers. She didn't think it was obvious yet, the swell, the apple-sized secret underneath the silvery striations of her old stretch marks.

The rebbetzin clucks. Uhm-hmmm. Estie and Tzipi will be very happy to have a sister or a brother.

She nods weakly, her subterfuge so easily defeated.

You haven't told Yitzy yet?

She shakes her head. No.

The rebbetzin nods. And why not?

It's just... well, it's my sheitel...

The rebbetzin stands, looking at her expectantly, but she can't finish the sentence.

She walks gingerly down the tiled steps into the mikvah, the warm water swallowing her ankles, her knees, her thighs. Her feet reach the bottom of the pool, she's shoulder deep. Her unbound hair floats on the surface, spreading out in a nimbus of deep brown eels. She recites the bracha and immerses once, twice, three times.

Kosher...kosher...kosher... the rebbetzin pronounces the word after each dunk, judging each satisfactory. And then she's left alone in the little room, left alone to reflect, to say her personal prayers.

She bends her knees, dropping down just so, so that the surface is just below her nose, the water covering her mouth. And she looks. She looks for any tiniest grain of sand, any fragment of dead skin, any lost hair that some other woman may have missed. Any other piece of any other woman's life that might be suspended in the warm womb of the pool. She listens for any secret the tiles might have absorbed. She listens for stowaway wishes.

* * *

When Yitzy gets home from work on Friday afternoons, the floors are swept, the challah is baked, and the children are bathed.

Our sages say that two angels accompany a Jew on his way back home from shul on Friday nights. Two messengers, one good. And one of the yetzer hara, the dark side, the evil inclination, the animal soul. Two angels follow him home, and if the house has been properly prepared for making Shabbos, the lamp lit, the table set, the couch spread, then the good angel speaks a blessing that next Shabbos will be just the same, and the bad angel is compelled to answer Amen. If the house is not prepared, it is the evil angel that utters the wish, that next Shabbos should be the same, and the good angel then must agree, seal the curse with its own Amen.

There's a roasted chicken in the oven, eight pieces with crisp skin, arranged on a bed of sliced mushrooms and bay leaves swimming in olive oil. He wheels his bicycle down to the basement, and as he passes through the kitchen, he gives her a quick kiss, his lips pleasantly dry and warm, or tugs on her apron strings playfully. His beard smells of sawdust.

For this Shabbos, there are fresh green beans simmering on the stovetop.

When Yitzy gets home from shul, everything is ready. The candles are lit. She's wearing her blue dress, and her sheitel, carefully brushed.

They sing together, as always:

Shalom Aleichem, malachei ha-shareis malachei el yon

Mi-melech malachei ha-melachim Ha-Kadosh Baruch hu...

Peace be upon you, ministering angels, messengers of the most High

The King who reigns over kings, The Holy One, Blessed be He...

And she hears two songs. The lyrics mingle. They grapple. It's hard to tell what is what, who is who. She feels the baby move, low and deep in the crucible of her belly. Her hip hurts.


BIO: Anna Lea Jancewicz lives in Norfolk, Virginia, where she homeschools her children and haunts the public libraries. Her writing has appeared or is forthcoming at Literary Mama, Squalorly, Bitterzoet, Fuck Fiction, Black Heart Magazine, and The Citron Review. Her art will be featured on the cover of an upcoming issue of Anti-. Yes, you CAN say Jancewicz: Yahnt-SEV-ich. More at: http://annajancewicz.wordpress.com/