Amantha the Brave
Stepping onto the back porch of the cabin, Amantha paused and took a content breath. The familiar Hebrew welcome sign, which matched the wood of the porch, looked slightly worn but evoked nostalgia. The porch was littered with clay planters filled with nothing but dirt, whereas during her childhood summers her mother kept them overflowing with flowers. Behind the railing, the fall trees looked like fireworks on the mountainside. She smiled as she scraped the $4.00 orange price sticker off the side of the wine bottle.
After this, Amantha struggled to open the sliding-glass door with her free hand. Inside, her youngest sister Sharon and Sharon’s daughter Ariella were on the couch absorbed in a coloring book. Finally, the sliding door moved with a loud, reluctant squeak. Sharon and Ariella looked up.
“So, the liquor store didn’t have much selection, but I was lucky and found . . . this,” Amantha said, holding out the bottle.
“No. No. Not Manischewitz,” Sharon said. “Go back. Take it back.”
“Oh but it’s Concord Grape,” Amantha said. “Wasn’t that your favorite?”
“I can’t tell if your mischievous smile is because you’re kidding or because you really think that’s good wine.”
Amantha’s smile broadened and her eyes narrowed.
“It was my favorite when I was like sixteen,” Sharon said. “I’m pretty sure Dad is the only one who still drinks Manischewitz, and that’s just on principle. He’d rather be having Scotch.”
Sharon accepted the bottle in exchange for baby Ariella, who was clutching her coloring book.
Leslie, the middle sister, stepped into the cabin. She was followed by Sharon’s boxer Rocky, who barked and ran underfoot. “Wow, getting nippy out there,” Leslie said. “Huh? I forgot New York got cold upstate first, but the leaves! I love the leaves!”
Sharon gave Leslie, then the Manischewitz bottle, a disapproving look.
“What?” Leslie said. “Sorry! I just sent Amantha into the store and that’s what she came out with. I was in the car. Nothing to do with it.”
“You guys are terrible sisters,” Sharon said.
“Amantha,” Ariella said, “Amantha.” Ariella pointed at Amantha’s nose, which along with long dark hair was a feature that looked similar on each sister. It was narrow and not so hooked to fully fit stereotypes, but still somewhat hooked. Overall, Amantha had the broadest features. She was by far the tallest, which along with her status as the oldest, often placed her in a leadership role that she wore reluctantly. Throughout her life she had been told she was pretty, though not quite as often as Leslie who was often told she looked like a faerie.
“Hello-hello Pumpkin,” Amantha said to Ariella. “Are we terrible to your mother? Are we terrible?”
Amantha shifted the baby to one hip, reached into Leslie’s bag and produced a bottle of artisanal gin, followed by some fresh blueberries and basil.
“Alright, you’re still terrible, though,” Sharon said.
Amantha and Leslie laughed.
“Oh,” Amantha said. “The guy at the store said, for the gin, you should muddle the berries and basil, and let it sit with a little sugar.”
“I’m starving,” Sharon said. “Do we need all the blueberries or is there anything else to nosh?”
“If you look in there.” Amantha gestured with her chin.
Sharon opened Amantha’s luggage to reveal several wax bags of half caramel and half powdered-cheese popcorn.
“I picked them up for Ariella in O’Hare Airport,” Amantha said. “And ended up eating half the bag on the flight.”
“O’Hare? Chicago? What were you doing in Chicago?”
“Job interview.” She rolled her eyes. “We can talk later.”
“Oh my gosh. This is like crack,” Sharon said, licking cheese dust off her fingers. “Listen, will you watch the monster for a minute while I go for a S-M-O-K-E, then we can give her a bath together. I want to hear about the job too, but I’ve just been dying for a—” Sharon gestured smoking with her fingers, then handed Ariella the bag of popcorn, which Ariella cradled like a baby.
“Of course,” Amantha said. “Go. Go. We’ll be fine.” She turned. “Leslie, you have the kitchen?”
“I have the kitchen!” Leslie said from the other room. Rocky seemed conflicted between staying near the cooking smells and staying near Ariella, so he paced between them in small circles until Sharon said, “Here Rocky. Here.” Together, they went through the sliding door out to the back porch.
Amantha carried Ariella to the living room. The walls were wooden, except for an exposed-brick far wall, where there was a fireplace just beneath a keystone. The room was full of what would’ve been enviable technology when the cabin was heavily used in the early ‘00’s: a PlayStation, a DVD player, and alphabetized stacks of CDs. Amantha sat Ariella on the couch near the kid’s table, where Ariella promptly knocked over a plastic bucket full of mismatched and mostly broken crayons and markers.
“What’ve you got here?” Amantha asked, touching the coloring book, which she saw featured Lady and the Tramp. On the page Ariella had open, the Tramp had been drinking from a fountain. Ariella had drawn some triangular blue lines over his chin to indicate dripping water.
Ariella, done with the popcorn, reached for the coloring page and gazed at Amantha’s technique. Amantha paused to wipe Ariella’s hands clean – tugging at each finger one at a time with a wet-nap – which Ariella indifferently allowed, never breaking eye contact with the page.
“Tra-a-a-amp,” Ariella said.
By the time Sharon returned, smelling like cigarettes, she’d been gone long enough for the spaghetti scene to be colored in by steadier, adult hands.
Ariella handed a ribbon to Amantha, going up on her toes to bang it against Amantha’s waist. Amantha accepted it and tied the fabric into her hair as a bow. “Thank you,” Amantha said, “that’s very sweet.”
Ariella nodded, and started to walk away. But then Sharon scooped her up and said, “Sweet or not, Mom says you still need a bath.”
The three of them went to the tub. Amantha pressed a button that heated the floor tiles. She sat on the tub’s edge and started the water, testing the temperature with her fingers.
“Tell me about this job,” Sharon said. She sat on the toilet cover.
“Stockfield & Price. It’s a lobbying firm. Still healthcare. They lobby for a network of hospitals around Chicago and New York, and it would be—”
“Are you going to take it?”
“I need an offer first.” She flicked nothing from her eye. “But I don’t know. It’s in Chicago, and not far from where I did grad school. The money is better. But the major question is how it plays into the rest of my career, right? I’m not sure that’s there. I’m not sure I want to be a lobbyist even if it’s for – if they mostly have the right positions.”
“That sounds great,” Sharon said. “I hope they offer it to you. That’s really great. Really. Really.”
Amantha studied her sister’s face for a moment. “Right. How’ve you been? How has 2015 for you? How’s Jersey going?” Amantha asked.
“I’m sorry. I’m just in a bad mood. I’m not – it’s just – Noah and I had this fight. It wasn’t really a fight. I just can’t even really focus. I don’t want to talk about it. I feel like I’ve said it so many times.”
After testing the tub, Amantha turned up the hot knob and stirred the water.
“There,” Amantha said to Ariella. “It’s ready, I think. What do you think Pumpkin?” Amantha lifted Ariella so that Ariella could test with her fingers.
“Read-dee,” Ariella said. Amantha lifted Ariella the rest of the way and lowered her into the tub.
“I don’t know, sis,” Amantha said. “Maybe you should go back to working at the Yeshiva. Part time at least.”
“No,” Sharon said.
“You don’t think they’d let you?”
Ariella splashed the water surrounding a rubber frog so that it bobbed up and down. Amantha stealthily pinched the frog’s foot and slowly zig-zagged the frog away. Ariella grabbed it firmly and looked confused, then followed the fingers holding the frog’s foot up to an arm up to Amantha’s smile. “What happened Pumpkin?” Amantha asked, then zig-zagged the frog away again. This time Ariella laughed, grabbing just as the escape attempt started. Ariella then looked up at Amantha expectantly, loosening her grip just slightly so the game could reset. Like this, they invented a makeshift game for while the adults talked.
“Oh they’d love having me back,” Sharon said. “I definitely don’t want to go. That’s not the problem. Noah likes being the breadwinner, as much as he complains. And I can’t imagine being away from my little monster for more than – I just . . .” Sharon reached her hand into the tub and stroked Ariella’s hair back, then pressed a loose fist against her own chin, where her fingers fidgeted nervously. “I don’t see why he needs to get so irritable. It’s just a damn sweater. Return it or don’t. Why does this need to be a discussion that lasts the full ride when we’re not going to see each other all weekend?”
“I’m not following fully,” Amantha said. Her eyes squinted.
“I’m fine. I’m just rambling. I’m just getting myself worked up over nothing.”
“It’s never nothing.”
“He bought me this mustard yellow sweater for my birthday. And I told him before, ‘Never buy me clothes, because I’m particular about what I like’. Is that so hard? Am I being unreasonable?”
“I think a lot of women don’t trust their husbands with fashion.”
“Yeah, I know. It wasn’t even that he bought it, but I told him not to a million times before and he was just so unapologetic. Like completely sure he did nothing wrong and he’s fine putting in zero effort to fix it. You know what? I shouldn’t be talking about this. This is Leslie’s weekend. I’m happy to be here. How often do we do this? I’m going for a cigarette. Are you okay here?”
“You just smoked.”
“I know but I’m going for a cigarette. And when I’m done I’m going to be in a better mood.”
“We’re okay here. My niece and I.” Amantha squeezed Sharon’s wrist as Sharon passed by. “But don’t think you’re getting through dinner without us seeing and making fun of the sweater chosen by the man you married.”
* * *
“That smells great. Is this Bob Dylan singing Christmas songs?” Amantha asked Leslie from near the stereo. Ariella was in Amantha’s arms wrapped in a towel, dripping. “It’s not even Christmastime, which doesn’t even begin to express the problems with its existence or presence in our CD player.”
“Isn’t it amazing?” Leslie said from the kitchen. “Dad must have bought it at Starbucks or something – it’s too new to be ours.”
“He’s so weird. He doesn’t even liked Dylan. Good lord, the rest of this is like our teenage CD graveyard. NSYNC – that’s Sharon. Then all this stuff from when every new indie band was required to have ‘The’ in their name, these are probably ours.”
“I knew I skipped Napster for a reason: so we could have these now. Which ‘The’ bands do we have?”
“The Black Keys. The Hives. The Strokes. The Killers. The White Stripes. I can totally picture you sitting in the wingback chair learning to play guitar by repeating the opening chords to Seven Nation Army.”
“Oh play that!”
“Doesn’t look like that one made it. We’ve got the one with Fell in Love with a Girl.” Amantha pressed the middle of the case to loosen the CD. “Pumpkin, can you grab that CD for me? Can you grab it?” Ariella lifted the CD unsteadily and placed it in the stereo.
Amantha turned to the DVDs. “Billy Elliot might be a little intense,” she said. “Perhaps Dirty Dancing is in order?”
“Dirty Dancing is always in order.” Leslie came from the kitchen, and came close enough to shake Ariella’s hand. “Did you mention her going back to work?”
“I mentioned it. I didn’t slip it in as smoothly as I could have.” Amantha squinted and sucked in. “Sorry. She shut it down right away.”
Leslie nodded. “Ohhh. Thanks for trying. She’s so stubborn.”
* * *
“Okay Sharon, dinner is served!” Amantha said, opening the sliding door to the back porch and stepping out with Leslie. “We’ve decided to call it the Ho-Won Honorary Bibimbap. Kosher and vegetarian and glorious. Leslie married the right one, but I’m glad she first suckered Ho-Won into teaching us Korean recipes.”
Sharon smiled slightly, stubbing her cigarette out in an ashtray she’d brought out with her. She rested her head on the railing and looked at them.
“Blessing bee pop quiz. Topic: Bibimbap. Go!” Leslie said.
“Correction. Topic: Ho-Won Honorary Bibimbap. Go!” Amantha clarified.
“Blessing bees,” Sharon said, smiling. “I forgot about those. I’m retired.”
“Oh come on, do one for us.” Amantha said.
“I can’t believe mom tricked you into thinking you enjoyed those competitions,” Leslie said. “How did it go? Don’t you have to bless the food according to grain type and food group?”
“All I remember,” Sharon said, “is that if you bless the bread first you’re safe. That’s what we do at home.”
“That is a cheat that will lead to eating unnecessary carbs,” Amantha said. “I say, get back in the game. The Rabbis must have come up with something for quinoa by now.”
“You’re terrible older sisters,” Sharon said. “You should’ve let me brood in peace.” She sighed, leaned back and lifted herself up with her back scrapping against the railing.
* * *
They watched Fantasia after the meal ended. When the Nutcracker suite came on, Amantha contorted Ariella’s body into some basic ballet moves. “You’d be a perfect sugar plum,” Amantha said.
“She can do ballet if it gives her your posture,” Sharon said, from the dining table.
Amantha looked back skeptically.
“What?” Sharon said, sipping tea. “You have good posture. Particularly for a tall girl. Ballet made you comfortable in your skin. You should see how the tall girls hunch by the time I see them at Yeshiva.”
“If believing that gets you to send her to ballet, I agree entirely.”
Ten minutes later, Ariella was asleep in Amantha’s left arm, which started to ache from the weight. Twenty minutes later, Ariella was put to bed, the sisters had refilled their drinks and Dirty Dancing was on at a lower volume than typical for them.
When the movie ended, they slept in their old rooms, except Sharon who took their parents’ room with the balcony overlooking the pool and mountains, because the Dollhouse Room was attached. The Dollhouse Room came supplied with a kid’s bed. In it, Ariella was sleeping surrounded by embroidered Star of David pillows. Next to the bed were an elaborate two-story dollhouse, a crib and a puzzle of Big Ben that was glued in place resting on a porcelain table.
Amantha’s room was the second largest and overlooked the driveway. The room was full of old Lion King stuffed animals, the first five Harry Potter books in hardcover, and a poster that proclaimed ‘hakuna matata’ in colorful letters. Next to this were two small acrylic paintings that she had done in high school: the first was of floating white ballet shoes against a light blue background and the second was the Brooklyn Bridge at night. The yellows of the World Trade Center’s windows looked out-of-place in the skyline, they’d been absent for so long.
Amantha checked her email on her phone after slipping into bed. Stockfield & Price’s HR department had written an overly congratulatory email, complete with a reference to their earlier voicemail and an attached offer letter.
Amantha absently found the ribbon Ariella had given her and put it on the night-table, uncertain of its ultimate fate but not ready to trash it.
The next morning, Amantha stepped out onto the porch with her coffee and scratched Rocky behind the ear, then slowly took the steps into the backyard to clean the pool. She was surprised to find the pool’s heating component already on and the area completely spotless, with only the first stray fall leaves drifting on the surface. Only then did she recall the freshly stacked firewood and conspicuously clean house. “Thanks Dad,” she said softly, realizing he must have sent someone.
Amantha adjusted her expectations of the morning, which now felt like a gift of free time to be burned lazily. She returned inside briefly for a towel, then shouted up the stairs “Pool’s clean!”
“Okay!” Leslie said from upstairs, where a shower was going. After this, Amantha returned outside quickly. She touched her toe to the water first, then jumped in and started doing laps. Even with the pool heated, it was a little too brisk above the surface. Amantha pushed herself harder to keep warm. Rocky circled the pool, occasionally pawing the water, but eventually he got bored and rested nearby.
As Amantha’s arms started to tire, she looked up at the cabin’s room that was once her grandparents and now her parents’, and where her youngest sister would sleep that night. For the first time she felt loneliness akin to what she felt in DC when the apartment was empty.
Leslie wandered down in her bathing suit. “How did you clean it so fast?”
Amantha rolled her eyes. “Dad must’ve called ahead to have some local boys come and prepare the cabin for our visit.”
“Awesome,” Leslie said. She breathed in and looked around and nodded. She sat and let her legs float in the water. “Any word on the job?”
“I got the offer.”
“No way! Congratulations! That’s so great.” Leslie put up her hand for a high-five, which Amantha smacked.
“Yeah. Last night, before bed.”
“So what are you going to do?”
“Nothing yet. I don’t know. It’s not clear-cut. I don’t feel like I’m happy where I am, but I’m just not sure this’ll be better.”
Rocky came up to Leslie, and nuzzled under her arm. She pet him absently. “Hey boy, hey boy,” Leslie said, before turning to Amantha. “Well, do you want to tell me a little about both, and what’s good and what’s bad. They say guys meet up and discuss their 401k plans because they can’t discuss their feelings, so they end up with good investments and bad ulcers. So, maybe we can do both.”
“Sure. Well, my current job involves a lot of Obamacare implementation.” She smiled and shook her head slowly as she spoke. “Communication between insurance providers, and linking costs to health-outcomes rather than pay-for-service. Tactics to combat opioid abuse that worked here that can be applied there.”
“What’s the downside?” Leslie’s scrunched face as she asked this suggested that Leslie wasn’t fully following. Amantha tried simplify, but found it hard to avoid industry jargon.
“My current job’s non-partisan, and almost everything that’s actually interesting is partisan these days. There’s no such thing as nonpartisan legislative fixes to the ACA because one party wants to repeal it completely, so they don’t want to improve it. That makes a lot of what we do mechanical, even menial. Which is important and valuable, but I’ve done it for two years and I’m just . . . eager to get at the next stage.” Amantha smoothed the water with her hand. “But the new job would be lobbying, and I don’t know that I want to be a lobbyist. And moving to Chicago means at least year of a higher paying job that I don’t really want, in hopes that that would lead to something else. It’s a hard decision precisely because I’m not fully keen on either.”
“Got you,” Leslie said. She slid into the pool and let out an “Ahhhh!” She didn’t look back to Amantha while speaking. “How did you swim in this? So cold! So cold!”
“You warm up once you get moving. And I wasn’t going to miss my chance.”
“Okay. Okay. I don’t think I’m going to make it more than five minutes.” Leslie wrapped her arms around herself. “What does Dad think about the job?”
“I don’t know. I wrote him a long email about it, but haven’t heard back yet.” Amantha pulled herself up next to her sister on the side of the pool. “I mentioned Joey at the end of my email to dad.”
“That you’re dating Joey?”
“How do you think he’ll take it?”
“I don’t know. Dad knows Joey, and knows his parents. And it’s not like Joey’s the first who wasn’t Jewish.”
“The first in a while.”
“First in a while,” Amantha echoed. “Yeah.”
“I think you can expect he’ll respond negatively.”
“We’ll see. How do you feel about it?”
“Why would I care if he’s Jewish?”
“No, not that. I mean in general. Were you surprised to hear we were dating?”
“I guess that it was Joey. Of everyone. I like him but I thought, huh? I didn’t see it coming.”
“Why?” Amantha asked.
“Well, he’s confident and handsome, and seems like he’d be a real rock. In any situation. And he makes good money, which is nice. It’ll let you give your kids the same education and opportunities we had. Buuuut . . .” Leslie turned and let her hands run through the water like she was doing a breaststroke while standing in place.
“But . . .” Amantha repeated.
“But honestly, I was surprised to hear you two were dating. He’s a real lot like dad. Politically, but just also the way he carries himself. I don’t know. And they taught us in psychology 101 how repetition is a powerful impulse. Particularly the instinct to repeat and try to heal. It’s just . . . each of us has all these different compartments to our sense of self, and who we choose as a partner is going to turn up the volume or turn down the volume on the parts of you that they interact with. For Joey, he’s going to make you feel more secure. But I don’t know that you need that. You’ve got no fragility. I would have liked someone who makes your playfulness louder. Like a Tramp to your Lady. A feminist, preferably. But then, maybe he is those things. Maybe I’m misreading – what’s your experience of Joey been?”
Amantha pulled the towel from a nearby lawn chair and wrapped it around herself. “Not like that. From my side, I don’t know.” Amantha squinted. “I guess he is Republican, but should his politics matter that much? I was trying to avoid past patterns. You know, I haven’t done a great job with my recent partner choices. You know, picking men who didn’t get along with my friends, didn’t blend into my circles. And Joey knows everyone from when we were little, of course, but even more, he seems to get along with my DC circles.”
“I can see that. Okay I need to get out of the pool.” Leslie’s teeth were chattering, as she lifted herself out. Amantha passed her a towel and rubbed her arm.
“This is a good excuse to start a fire,” Amantha said. They started to head inside.
“I’m sorry if that was harsh. I like Joey,” Leslie said. “I mean one of us had to date him, and your younger sisters are both taken. So it’s good. I’m happy for you. It’ll be good.”
* * *
After bagels and lox on the porch, the sisters planned to hike to the old ranger station, a source of mystery in childhood and mischief in teenage years.
“Guys, I don’t think I’m going to join,” Sharon said, just as the packing was finished. “The Little Monster hasn’t napped and it could turn really bad for us all.”
“Oh, we can wait,” Amantha said.
“You don’t need to. Please don’t, really. I guess I want to nap too. I didn’t sleep all that well.”
Amantha nodded, and called to Rocky.
As they started off up the mountain, the foliage around them was full of vivid reds, yellows, and browns. They shed layers of clothing as the hike proceeded, the temperature rising with the sun, except during the occasional gust. Rocky ran ahead along the trail and then back, giving them a curious look that seemed to ask why they, too, didn’t move by bounding up and down hills.
“Maybe I should get Ethan to hang out with Sharon for a while, to get him to slow down with all the baby talk,” Leslie said.
Amantha grabbed Rocky by the scruff and made him stay while she pet him, then let him run off. “Ethan’s ready for kids?”
“Oh, yeah. Soooo ready. We babysit every week and it’s nice to see Ethan playing with her. I just need a year or two to enjoy the marriage without rushing in.”
“That makes sense,” Amantha said. “Being so far away, every time I see Ariella she’s like this new person. I just want to see all those stages. In a way, I’m almost more excited about motherhood than getting married to whoever that’ll be. I’m more curious to meet my future kids than my husband.” Amantha broke off a walking stick from a fallen tree, rotating it to twist off the last bit of bark. Once the branch came clean away, Amantha pounded it twice into the dirt victoriously. They continued up the trail.
“I’m sure somewhere Joey’s heart is breaking a little and he doesn’t know why.”
“Oh please. His heart’s just fine. He’s probably at his job, completely content toiling away at weekend work.”
They reached the tree line, and were surrounded by brushwood and tall grass. “Oh, I remember this,” Amantha said. “This is my favorite part of the hike.” They’d reached the rock scramble. She looked up and down it, and solved how they would have gotten Ariella up. Amantha took Leslie’s bag.
“What’s your dream job, if it’s not where you are or what you have an offer for?”
Amantha squinted. “I’m not sure. A job that really changes your average visit to the doctor? Bold substantive policy? With the ACA being so polarizing, it’ll be a long time before anything worthwhile gets legislated but you can design for the future. A real public option would be fun to draft and implement. Changing food subsidies so that they focus on healthy foods. Really, I just want to be doing something more substantive.”
“So waiting for something better is the scarier option, but the one you feel is more likely to get you the dream job?”
“I think that’s right,” Amantha said.
Rocky spotted something and darted. They came to the fire pit, which meant they weren’t far from the abandoned ranger station. Just as Amantha saw the burnt-out husk of the station, looking smaller and worse-for-wear than she remembered, she heard Rocky yelp. The brush rustled and Rocky came out whimpering and limping. Amantha said, “Here boy. Here,” and sat on a log near the pit. Leslie sat next to her.
Amantha inspected the limping leg, at first looking for a broken bone, but the leg itself stretched fine and nothing felt off. Only when Amantha’s fingers reached Rocky’s paw did he respond by jolting the whole leg back.
“What is it?” Leslie asked.
“I don’t know. The paw?” Amantha took the leg again while Rocky hopped in place. Amantha inspected the paw more gently. “Oh you stupid thing. I think he found a porcupine. It’s okay. It’s okay boy.” She stroked Rocky’s head.
“Do we take him to the vet?”
“No, we need to take them out here. I’m not carrying him and this has got to hurt. Oh, he’s got them all in his snout too. You foolish dog. I hope you had fun. Did you see a porcupine and decide to chase it? Of course you did, what else would you do? What else would you do?” She tried gripping one quill in Rocky’s paw with her fingers, but it slipped right through while causing a yelp. “I wish Joey were here. He’s good at this kind of thing. Could you – will you look in my bag? I think my Leatherman has pliers in it.”
Leslie searched the bag, located the tool, opened it to the pliers and handed it to Amantha.
“Here,” Amantha said. “I need you to hold his snout like this so he doesn’t bite.”
Amantha yanked the first quill from between the webbing of his paw. Rocky bucked his head slightly, but willingly handed his paw back after. “It’s okay. It’s okay,” Amantha said softly. Amantha repeated this act. Taking out the quills one at a time. “Good boy. I’m sorry. There. I’m sorry. Almost done.”
“Amantha, look how he’s licking and moving his face. I think he has one in his tongue. Oh, Rocky.”
Amantha pushed in the sides of Rocky’s jaw to force his mouth open and spotted a quill, close to the front of his tongue. “Rocky, if you bite me, I’m going to be really upset with you,” Amantha said.
“Are you sure?” Leslie asked.
“It needs to come out.”
Leslie gripped Rocky by each side of the head tightly. Amantha pulled this last one slowly, gently, while whispering “Just think of dog bones. Think of a nice juicy steak.” A slight growl rumbled, but his eyes looked confused and panicked rather than vicious. “Shh. Shh. Dog bones.” His mouth shut partially, instinctually, and got drool over everything. But the final quill came out. Amantha collapsed back onto the log. Rocky whimpered, licked his own face, then yawned and wagged his tail, looking around as if nothing unusual had happened.
“You’re going on the leash mister,” Leslie said. “You’re fooling no one.”
Amantha put her elbows on the log. “Okay. I just need a second,” she said, wiping her brow.
“Joey’s good with animals?” Leslie asked. She picked up a nearby twig and started breaking it to busy her hands.
“Yeah. He’s got that quiet authority that they like.”
“You really like him.”
“I do.” Amantha said, digging out water and grapes from her pack. “I feel like we just got through that stage where you sort of deny how strongly you’re beginning to feel and just tell everyone you’re taking things slow.”
“You’re past that stage?”
“I think so.” This felt good for Amantha to admit out loud. Previously, she only let herself feel the tug of the relationship between the hours of 9pm and whenever she fell asleep. “I’m fairly certain he’s feeling the same. That we’re in balance, but who knows.”
“Have you tried asking?”
“He’s more of a . . . gesture guy. His whole family loves projects and tasks to help each other, and that’s how they show affection. But they’ve got a bit of unease expressing themselves.”
“That’s exactly like Dad.”
“A little.” Amantha thought of how Dad had someone clean the cabin for them. “About the gestures. Though he seems to get his viewpoint across more strongly.”
“That can be a little dangerous, because you also don’t always let others see what’s going on inside you either.”
“It can be a challenge, but we’ve been working through it pretty well so far.” Amantha grabbed a stick and started drawing a ballot shoe in the ashy dirt. “Was it ever a problem with Ho-Won, that he wasn’t Jewish?”
“You’ve dallied with goys in the past,” Leslie said teasingly. “So you know.”
“In college, but that was frat boys and not really serious. They were like – they saw a New York Jewish girl as exotic, and I guess their preppie southern geniality was exotic to me. It was strange, all around. Ho-Won was a real relationship. You lasted years. He converted for you.”
Leslie laughed. “He started the process convert. He found some Reformed Jewish Rabbi that was seeing him on weekends. Thankfully, we broke up before he got circumcised.”
“Did it help?”
“I don’t know. It’s apparently easier to join or discard a religion than to join or discard a culture. He started knowing all these things about mezuzahs, whereas I spent my childhood swapping out the prayer parchments with lyrics from The White Stripes’ My Doorbell. I translated the lyrics into Hebrew.”
“Yeah. It’s probably still there. I think I was rebelling against dad for something, but then I only did the back porch because I got too spooked about letting spirits in.”
“Huh.” Amantha put a grape in her mouth and chewed thoughtfully, then slapped her own leg. “Maybe that’s how Ho-Won got in. Our defenses were down.”
“I think he did it so that Dad would see how hard he was trying to make me happy and that would . . . lead to his approval or something.” Leslie sniffed heavily, then laughed and tapped her stick against the log. “God. I hadn’t thought about that . . .”
“That’s adorably sweet and adorably misconceived,” Amantha said.
“At the time I certainly thought we failed because of other things. I hope that it was other things: different ambitions, timelines. All that could explain it. After that Ethan was easier to slip into, and I’m happy, but after all that battling, sometimes you can’t figure out which fights you’re having are real and which are this internalized voice that’s just snuck in over the years.”
“I understand,” Amantha said. “Thanks. I know that was probably hard to share.” She touched Leslie’s shoulder. “Ethan is awesome. You don’t even know how rare he is.”
“I know. It’s not unresolved at all. It’s just – Honestly, I’m afraid of thinking about it closely.” She stood and looked around, rubbing her arms. “It’s getting breezy up here. Maybe we should . . .”
“Yeah. We should.”
* * *
The hike back went faster than the trip up. Rocky acted indignant about being leashed, and tugged constantly, but even these tugs were half-hearted. His chin was still slightly bloodied from the quills.
On reaching the cabin, Amantha washed her hands and headed right for her room while The Raconteurs’ Steady, As She Goes played on the CD player. She passed Sharon on the way up the stairs, and told Sharon she’d be down in a moment to help with dinner. Sharon nodded sleepily. Amantha checked her email as soon as she reached her room. Stockfield & Price had already responded to the questions she’d sent about the health care package, an org chart and expected travel requirements.
Amantha stared at the email for a full minute, then googled more information about the firm and stared at these pages blankly. The haze only lifted when Leslie called from downstairs to ask if Amantha still wanted to help with dinner. She came down and stepped into the kitchen. Sharon said, “I heard you saved Rocky. Amantha the Brave!”
“Yeah, well, Rocky’s just lucky the Pumpkin likes him so much.” As Amantha said this, there was the sound of a key at the front door lock. Car lights came through the curtains. The sisters froze and looked at each other. Rocky went to the door and started pacing in front of it.
“We expecting . . . ?” Amantha asked. The others shook their heads. Amantha turned down the music then slowly went to the window, only to jump back as the door opened.
“Dad? What’re you doing here? Did you just drive here?” Amantha asked.
Ari stepped in and looked over the cabin like a boss might survey his office. “I wanted to have dinner with my daughters.”
The sisters’ mother Nila followed and kissed Amantha over the paper bags she carried. “We’ll just stay for dinner and then be off,” Nila said.
“You should stay the night, now that you’re here, we just didn’t expect—” Amantha said.
“You’re offering to let me stay the night in my home,” Ari said.
“No. I just – we didn’t expect you or we would have prepared. And mom’s back pain.”
“My back’s fine,” Nila said. “I asked to come. Leave me out of it.”
“I . . . of course you should stay. It’s a three hour drive,” Amantha said.
“Just for dinner.” Ari said. “We brought steaks from Fischer’s. I’ll get the grill going. They’ll cook quickly, if you’re in a rush.”
“Of course, of course,” Amantha said. “No rush.”
Ari handed Amantha a Tupperware full of marinating steaks packed with icepacks, which Amantha instinctively brought out by the grill.
“Dad,” Amantha said, from by the entrance, “You know Leslie doesn’t eat steak. And we were going to roast root vegetables.”
“Leslie doesn’t need to eat steak. Your mother made kugel. It’s in the car.”
“I’m fine – no need to cook two meals” Leslie said. “I’ll have the kugel and leftover salad.”
“See, she’ll have the kugel and leftover salad,” Ari said. Immediately, he busied himself outside with the grill while Nila made the table and reheated the kugel.
“Ah, now,” Ari said when the steaks were done. He placed his hand gently on Nila’s shoulder and whispered could she please get five wine glasses, the nice ones. She touched his hand and nodded. He searched a drawer with familiarity, and pulled out a corkscrew. He opened the Manischewitz and poured glasses for them all. Amantha suspected but wasn’t certain that he knew they all hated the sticky-sweet wine, and that this was a punishment, daring them to admit the wine was only purchased as a joke. This would require a lot of deduction, but he knew them.
“L’Chaim,” he said.
“L’Chaim,” the sisters and Nila said back.
Ari sat slowly.
“So, how was the Honeymoon? You’re looking tan. Yaniv and Sheila looked well?”
“Yes, they were so sweet. We even stayed two nights.”
“Excellent, and the rest of the trip?”
“Galilee was just amazing. The resort, the sea. Everything.”
“And Ethan. He enjoyed his first time in Israel?”
“He really liked it, other than Tel Aviv. But that’s just because he hates cities.”
“And you, Sharon? Noah said you’re thinking of having another kid?”
Sharon looked at Ari, then at Amantha. Amantha smiled stiffly. Sharon looked back at Ari. “Probably.”
“Probably or yes?”
“Yes, we’re going to try for another.”
“Once Ariella is in daycare.”
“Don’t wait too long. When they get more than two years apart it makes things harder.” He tapped his hand on the table. “And you Amantha. My daughter, all the way in DC. How are you?”
“Good. It’s been a nice weekend. Thanks for turning on the pool.”
“And Joey’s family?” He licked his lips and stared at Amantha. The beat of his fingers on the table quickened. Leslie coughed, and Amantha looked at her briefly, before returned to her father’s stare.
“Joey’s family? They’re good.”
“They’re such nice hosts aren’t they? Stevie and Ellen. I remember when we went fishing with them. They were so . . . generous.” He smiled.
“Yeah, I like them a lot. We went on the same boat and . . .” Ari held up two fingers and pointed them towards Amantha, and she trailed off.
“Does it trouble Stevie and Ellen that they know I would never approve of a marriage?” he asked.
“How could you say that? I didn’t think you would disapprove, and they probably didn’t either. They probably didn’t think about marriage at all. Anything. We just started dating a few months ago. Is that why you’re here?”
He wiped his face and put down his napkin. “You didn’t think I’d disapprove, but didn’t mention it until after you visited his family?”
“I thought you’d have a response, not that you’d crash a Sisters’ Cabin Retreat to make a point. And I don’t understand why you’re so upset? I’ve been on dates with all the Jewish guys in DC. And I looked for them because I know they’d be easier for me to date, not just so you’d approve.”
“And then you stopped looking when the search became inconvenient. Your sisters both found Jewish men from those that were available. They are doing well. Are you special in some way that makes a Jewish man too boring?”
Amantha looked at her sisters. Sharon was cutting the steak into small cubes for Ariella and putting them on a fork up against Ariella’s lips. Ariella was sometimes swallowing and sometimes spitting them out. Leslie was leaning over the table, clutching her arms around her chest, her plate untouched.
“Of course I don’t think I deserve something special or that Jewish men are boring,” Amantha said. “I love who my sisters found but look – I’m not them. I’m thirty. I’m 5’10”. And I want a family soon. And that’s out there – men who want that too. But there is not an unlimited supply. Joey fits more of your requirements than anyone I’ve ever dated: he’s conservative, he supports Israel, you know his family, he’s ambitious. He checks off all your boxes but this one. You can only have so many requirements.”
“Date younger men. Date shorter men. I only have one requirement.”
“What about Ho-Won?” Leslie asked.
“Ho-Won didn’t meet that one requirement. And I’m speaking to your sister, not you.”
Ari turned back to Amantha.
“You think that because this boy is conservative, he supports Israel politically and you knew him as a kid, that he’ll be on your side. I believe he’s a good kid, and I do business with his family. And he might have that connection to you, but he won’t have that connection to us, to this table.” He smiled broadly, removed his glasses and tapped them on the table.
“Dad, can I say—” Amantha said.
“Hold on, let me finish. Then you can speak. It’s not about prejudice against anyone. It’s about preserving something that you, Amantha, owe your life to,” he said. He shook his head slowly. “It wasn’t that long ago. 1960s. 1970s.” He pointed at himself. “I lived it. When I graduated from law school the prejudice was so extreme I wasn’t welcome. No one was if your last name was Leibowitz or Goldberg. Ask any of us from that time. I had my application torn up in front of me after a round of interviews, before I left the building. The work ethic – the education – the community saying, ‘The world won’t help us. We must help ourselves,’ that saved me. The same traditions that helped my father when he arrived in Washington Heights and that will help Ariella when she goes to school. My firm took the work the white shoe firms wouldn’t touch. They looked down on our bankrupt clients, or us getting our hands dirty in hostile takeovers. And when we stole the white shoe firms’ clients, and we were in charge, did we discriminate in hiring? We didn’t discriminate – we hired the smart Catholic kids, smart lower-class kids. Not just my firm – Wachtell Lipton, best firm in the world, started by Jews shut out of other shops, they let everyone in. You can work with them, you can be friends with them, but not in the house. You must preserve who you are in the house. It’s the only thing that saved us over and over, when persecution comes. And it’ll happen again. I have lived long enough. It’s not me I’m worried about. It’s Ariella. It’s your children.”
Amantha met her father stare throughout his comments, but when he finished and there was silence she looked down at her steak and began shifting it on the plate with no desire to eat. “Dad, that’s horrible,” Amantha said, “that you faced discrimination. You’ve told me this same story before. It made me sad then and it makes me sad now. And I am prouder than you think – but it’s not connected for me like it is for you. Or it doesn’t have to be. It’s not a crime. A kid that’s half-Jewish. They’re all over the place these days. He’ll just enjoy latkes and have a guilt-free Christmas tree.”
Ari poured himself more wine. He sighed in an affected manner. “It’s fine,” he said, “I was just trying to save you grief. You’ll see. I’ve said what I have to say. You’re young and you’re arrogant. No concept that someone who has lived twice as long as you, and who has been married, happily, for as long as you’ve been alive, might have a small bit of insight that could be worth weighing. You’d rather sit here with your sisters and mock your culture. Excuse me.”
Ari threw his napkin down on his plate again and left towards the restroom. Everyone in the room looked shell-shocked and tense, even baby Ariella. Sharon wouldn’t take her eyes from her child but bounced her up and down on her knee nervously.
“Mom, how is your back?” Amantha asked, softly breaking the silence.
Nila looked at Amantha with concern. “I’m sorry he’s behaving like such a brute. He just doesn’t want to see our family fractured. He worries so much about you with you so far away.”
Ari returned and announced that they were leaving. He looked momentarily sad and exhausted. But moments pass, and in the next one he looked solid and certain that he had just administered a difficult lesson. He put on his jacket with practiced exaggeration, and noted that he and Nila had a long ride home. When Amantha suggested again that they stay, Ari waved his hand and said, “We’re old. We like sleeping in our own bed.”
He paused at the door. “Sharon, we’ll see you for dinner next week. Leslie, glad the honeymoon went well. Congratulations again. Oh, and Amantha of course you should take the lobbying job. It’s the better position. Sometimes when people get too smart they start overthinking things. And you’ve always had an unchecked imagination and an admirable exuberance that you tend to direct at I-don’t-know-why-or-what. Whatever whims you get into your head. But take the promotion. You earned it. It’s clearly the better position and I’m proud you got it.” He looked down and patted his pocket to confirm something was there, then looked up at Amantha. “At least you’ll be secure then, if you spend too much time on dead-ends and never marry.”
The door shut.
The sisters looked at the table rather than at each other. No one moved until the sound of the car receded. The silence was filled with the now incongruous peppy sounds of the Strokes’ Is This It playing on the stereo.
Ari’s steak was half-eaten, but the Manischewitz bottle was empty. Amantha considered smashing it against the wall to break the tension, the smash satisfying like breaking wedding glass. She might have done it if not for Ariella.
Amantha felt rage rising along her spine, but by the time it reached her lips she simply said: “I’m sorry guys. I had no idea he was going to respond that strongly. I thought . . . because it was Joey . . .”
Leslie touched Amantha’s shoulder. Amantha squeezed her hand just long enough to rise from her seat, then lifted her dish and their mother’s dish.
“No, I’m okay. It doesn’t change anything. It’s just too bad. I can’t believe he made mom drive all that way just to say that. It’s not even the decision I needed to make this weekend.”
After Amantha helped clear the table, she washed the dishes while Leslie dried. They joked about Donald Trump, and what he might act like as a head busboy. Finally, they divvied up the root vegetables they had intended to cook, so they wouldn’t go to waste when the sisters left the cabin in the morning.
Upstairs, Amantha cried openly in the shower and then more self-consciously in her room. After she was done, she tried to picture her potential futures, how they played out after splitting in two different directions. At her childhood worktable, she opened her laptop and drafted an email rejecting the lobbying job offer with as much care and respect as she would have put into a letter if she were still trying to get the job. She closed the email by mentioning an event at her alma matter, where the recruiting woman also went: Amantha would attend later in the year and she hoped they might see each other then.
She stared at the email, then deleted it and stood. She sat down, clicked “undo” and saved the message to her “Drafts” folder, shut down the computer and went off in search of ice cream.
Of course she did.
What else would she do?
Timothy DeLizza was raised in Brooklyn, New York. He currently lives in Washington, DC, where he works as an energy attorney for the government. His first novella "Jerry (from Accounting)" was published by Amazon.com as a Kindle Single in March 2017. His complete publication history may be found here: http://www.timothy-delizza.com/list-of-works/