Boats and Blood
Everyone has a lagoon.
That’s what my Spanish teacher Señora Henriquez told me back in October, at the beginning of eighth grade. She’s this super sweet white-haired Cuban woman with a cross around her neck and a long white scar on her arm.
Don’t picture palm trees and glittering sand. Don’t picture any purple postcard sunset. That’s not what she meant.
I went to see her when I couldn’t stand class anymore. I’m bad at Spanish—like I actually suck at it—and there was nothing in the world I hated more than when the other Latina girls laughed at my clunky accent.
She sat me down in the Romance Language office. Black and white pictures of Havana stood on neat stacks of quizzes. She had come to the U.S. on a rickety boat when she was twenty and pregnant. The boat had flipped in a storm off the Florida Keys and she’d swum five hours to shore. She did it for her daughter.
“Gabriela,” said Señora Henriquez—pronouncing my full name in the most beautiful Spanish accent like no one ever pronounced it, with a lilt and a sparkle like a stream going up and over a rock—“Gabriela. Every person on this earth has one place, one environment where they feel most themselves. Where your boat finds its own, perfect waves. That’s your lagoon.”
Her cross swung forward as she leaned in. I caught a whiff of fruity perfume.
“Maybe our classroom isn’t your lagoon, Gabby. Maybe Spanish isn’t your lagoon. That’s okay.” She put her hands on my shoulders. “Don’t let anybody tell you where your lagoon should be. Not even yourself.”
I thought of the Arizona desert, over two thousand miles away from here, which I loved more than any other place in the world. Mom and Dad and Simon and I had just gone there in July to meet my birth mother. Maybe the desert was my lagoon.
I asked Señora Henriquez, “Where’s yours?”
She leaned back in her chair and closed her eyes, smiling. “In the church. Kneeling. When the choir is singing.”
Of course then I thought of CBC. That’s our shul, Congregation B’nai Chorin. Where I met Danielle Alter, my former best friend. Where Simon and I had our joint Bar and Bat Mitzvah. People always glanced at me there—I’ve never gotten used to the whole eyes-sliding-away routine—but the songs and the murmurs and the rustling of pages always wrapped me in this warmth that I felt nowhere else. Yes. CBC had to be my lagoon.
I was about to say it to Señora Henriquez, but that was when the weird thing happened. This little burst of embarrassment stopped me. As if I were a little kid again, helping Danielle’s mom Gail in the CBC kitchen, overreaching, taking the bread basket when I’d already been given the punch bowl. How could I, Gabby Moskowitz, dare to think CBC was my lagoon?
And then something deeper: shame. Shame for being embarrassed.
I want to talk to Gail, I thought. She always understood.
She was still alive, back then.
It’s July 22nd now, and Gail’s been in the ground for a month. I don’t know, time keeps ticking. Danielle has started reading again, that’s a big step. Today her brother Mikey shaved off his thirty-day mourning beard. He said he couldn’t believe it only weighed 1.2 ounces. And today’s exactly one year since I met my birth mother in Arizona. To me, it feels like there’s a circle formed, some mysterious cycle completing itself and starting over, but it’s all lopsided, punched in. The shape of a bead bracelet dropped on the floor.
Let’s back up even further. All the way to that first Shabbat morning when we were seven, when Simon and Danielle and I went downstairs to the CBC kitchen to help Gail set up the kiddush.
She was bustling around in her gigantic apron, snapping her fingers and moving her shoulders and singing snippets of the Beatles as she stirred ginger ale into the punch bowl. If it wasn’t for her huge, prehistoric square glasses, you would never have guessed that she spent weekdays in a government lab researching quantum physics.
She showed us how to arrange the pastries in a spiral pattern on the platters and put three cherry tomatoes on a sprig of parsley in the center of the egg salad. “Chefs! Born chefs!” she kept saying, so loud and grand that another kiddush volunteer told her to keep it down or they’d hear her in the sanctuary. We felt so important.
It wasn’t enough for me, though. I wanted to be the best kiddush setter-upper.
When Gail asked me to carry the punch bowl into the social hall, I took the giant bread-basket of challah slices too, balancing it on top. But then I couldn’t see where I was going and walked into a table and the basket tipped just enough to spill the challah into the punch bowl and Simon, who wasn’t supposed to be better than me at this, laughed happily and said, “You dropped them in the punch!” Gail looked at me through her giant glasses and seemed right then to understand me completely. She said to Simon, “And she did a perfect job, didn’t she? Exactly what I need for my special challah punch balls.” Then she wadded up the sopping yellow challah slices, rolled them in powdered sugar so you couldn’t tell what they were, and set them on the lemon slices floating across the punch—tiny passengers on tiny boats—as if she’d planned it all along.
That’s the way my family is. I have more parents than most people. Gail was almost like another mom. I think of Señora Henriquez as my grandmother.
And I think of Simon as my twin.
It’s funny, the way Simon’s changed in the last month. Before Gail died, I’d been going crazy trying to get him to talk to any girl besides me. Take the night before the eighth-grade dance, for example. My best friend Mira and I had picked out our dresses weeks before; everything was set. I was going with Matt Kovács, but there isn’t much of a story there. Mira was going alone, obviously, because she’s Orthodox. Rina Lowell, though, this super quiet girl who I knew for a fact Simon had a huge crush on—she still didn’t have a date, and what was Simon doing? Searching the woods behind our neighborhood swimming-pool for a rare snake he’d glimpsed the night before at four a.m.
Okay, that didn’t come out right. Simon isn’t a freak or anything. And I love the forest behind the pool too. It’s this thick, sprawling patch of woods that’s somehow survived all the development, hidden between our neighborhood and the huge campus of Aurora, this weird new-agey nursing home that looks like a farm. There’s a creek in the woods, and a sandy bank under the trees, and it’s our secret—like this little sacred place where we can go if we’re upset and need to be alone, or alone together. I don’t know the names and songs of every bird out there like Simon does, and I’m definitely not a huge fan of nocturnal wildlife surveys, but the place is so quiet and peaceful it sometimes reminds me of the Arizona desert.
Anyway, that evening before the dance, I pulled Simon out of a clump of bushes by the creek. I was literally shoving his phone into his right hand and a slip of paper with Rina’s number into his left. But it was pointless. We’re talking about Simon who at the age of fourteen still escapes to the Fisher-Price playground after Shabbat services rather than hang around in the social hall and have to talk to “random people” over kiddush—still the same raspberry rugelach and challah with egg salad and brownies and wine and punch. Simon who reads the word WETA in a TV guide magazine at the doctor’s office and wonders why they’re talking about giant crickets from New Zealand. Simon who spent the entire shiva week after Grandpa died studying the field guides he’d inherited, and pretty much hasn’t put them down for the four years since.
I get it. Everyone’s different. Trust me, I would know that better than anyone.
But still, I gave it one last try. “Simon,” I said, as we turned onto our street. “It’s not like some drunken raging house party or something. It’s just people dancing and having a good time.”
As if to help my argument, a girl in a sports bra jogged past us. I looked pointedly at Simon, but he wasn’t paying attention. He’d just spied a white-breasted nuthatch on a tree trunk.
“I’m listening. Maybe dancing just isn’t my idea of a good time.”
“Okay, the only reason you think that is because you’ve never tried dancing in your life. You can whistle birds down from trees, Simon. Someone as musical as you has to like dancing, it’s in your blood.”
But then he heard a barred owl asking “Who cooks for you?” and the conversation was over, and I just got so angry at myself for mentioning his blood, because it sounded like I was accusing him or asking for sympathy or something. I’m adopted, just to be clear, and enough people in my life have drilled it into my head that I have zero right to ask for sympathy.
So flash forward three weeks, and here’s my point. The fact that Simon, my brother Simon, started talking to Danielle Alter on the day that her mom died seemed like something pretty close to a miracle. Which I do believe in, by the way.
Chocolate-Chip Mandel Bread and Lemon Surface-Cleaner
The call woke me up early Saturday morning, breaking the quiet of Shabbat. Mom answered on the first ring, her voice sharp.
There was too long of a silence. My mind leapt to Gail Alter. She’d had this mysterious infection for two weeks. All night, fluid from her spine had been running in some brand-new bacterial-DNA search-engine thing, but the results weren’t supposed to come in for twenty-four hours.
“No, no, no,” Mom said.
I threw back the covers and jumped out of bed. It was June 21st, the first day of summer, but I was shivering. In the hall I almost bumped into Simon as he ran out of his room. He was fumbling to put on his watch. He had always felt helpless without it.
Simon got to our parents’ room first and shoved open the door. Mom was sitting up in bed, one hand on her forehead pushing up her graying brown hair, the other hand clutching the phone to her ear. Dad, already dressed, was perched on the edge of his side of the bed, tying his shoe. A sliver of gold light sliced diagonally across the sheets, right between my parents, from where the little trash can was holding back one of the blinds, and a thought shot through me: If I had to choose one parent to die, who would it be?
“Oh, Danielle,” Mom said, her voice crumpling. “Oh, I’m sorry, I’m sorry.”
I jumped onto the bed next to Mom. She pulled me against her shoulder. Simon just dropped to the carpet and lay on his back.
I could hear Danielle’s voice through the phone now, weirdly deep and measured. She sounded confident, somehow. So different from how she used to be. But for two weeks now she had practiced being the new parent to her two younger brothers. Their dad, Jeff, was this really nice guy who couldn’t cook a frozen pizza. He was legendary for the time he’d ruined half their clothes by pouring liquid bleach into the washing machine like gravy over mashed potatoes.
“I’ll let the Rabbi know,” my dad said, straightening up. He wasn’t in synagogue clothes; he had probably just been getting up to water the tomatoes. But it was Shabbat, and no one in CBC’s Funeral Practices Committee—except for my mom—used the phone on Shabbat. That was why Danielle had called us. For the news to be announced during services this morning, someone would have to tell Rabbi Klein in person.
Mom nodded. Danielle was still talking. I could picture her pacing around the kitchen in her favorite Magic School Bus pajamas that had been way too big at our sleepovers years ago—she’d bought them like that on purpose, so she’d have them forever. Her mom used to bake chocolate-chip mandel bread and bring in the tray while the two of us sat on the floor making bead bracelets, and announce with a bow in a dramatic voice, “Some nourishment for the noble artisan sisters.”
Mom squeezed my shoulder against hers as she whispered into the phone, “Okay, honey. Bye.”
For a moment it was quiet. Then I heard the hum of the garage door closing behind Dad. And then Simon was jumping up and standing over us, yelling, “But I don’t get it, it doesn’t make sense, they said she could last till the results came in, they were gonna figure out what antibiotic to give her!”
And all Mom said was, “I know, I know, I don’t know, she didn’t make it,” and then, “Get dressed, we’re going over there.”
The Alters’ house is only a fifteen-minute walk from ours, in the next development over, but that morning we drove. Our neighborhood, Willowbridge Hill, was quiet except for a couple automatic sprinklers whispering as they sprayed the yellowing yards. It hadn’t rained in weeks.
I tried to think what in the world I would say to Danielle. Mom had made me call her twice, just to check in, after Gail’s name appeared on the refuah shleimah list in the CBC newsletter, and we’d dropped off some food at their house when no one was home. But Danielle and I hadn’t been friends, really friends, for three years.
Mom said gently to Simon, “You’re going to have to say something too, okay?”
Simon just looked out the window.
We found her and her brothers in her room, surrounded by wall-to-wall shelves of sci-fi books. Danielle was lying at a weird angle on the bed, surrounded by stuffed robots and space ships. Her brothers, Mikey and Al, were curled up on the floor petting Zev, a one-year-old golden retriever whose name means “wolf” in Hebrew. Zev leapt up and started sniffing my legs as soon as we walked in. Years before, I used to sleep in that bed under the glow-in-the-dark ceiling stars a couple times a month, but of course, Zev didn’t know that.
“Hi Gabby,” Danielle said, rolling over and standing up. “Hey Simon.”
Her voice was totally flat. I rushed over and hugged her hard. “I’m sorry,” I whispered lamely in her ear. “I just…”
She didn’t know how to hug, though. I had forgotten that. Her chin sort of stuck out over my shoulder and her arms hung loosely, barely closing around me.
“I like your shampoo,” she said.
What do you say to that? We stepped apart. Her thin brown hair hung straight down like blinds, but there was a new pink streak on the right side. It didn’t work for her, in my opinion. Somehow I would never have expected Danielle to dye her hair.
She still had bangs, though—maybe always would. They partially hid the thin inch of bleached pinkish skin above and to the right of her right eye. That was from this one Friday night at CBC when she was two. With everyone standing, silently praying (according to the story), she had waddled up the stairs onto the bima, right up to this antique silver Shabbat candelabra with its three gigantic olive-oil flames. All she did was climb onto a chair and lean over the candelabra to look a bit too closely. Even her eyelashes on that side had grown back pale, almost white, which the doctors considered a mystery. She thought it was hideous, but it wasn’t. I was always jealous of it. I would have loved to be marked forever by a Shabbat candle.
“Hey Gabby,” said Al, who was eight, “did you know Zev can do tricks?”
“Really?” I felt so stupid. Simon was hugging Mikey, who was crying, and who did know how to hug back. It’s actually safe to say Mikey gave “bear hug” a whole new meaning. He was a year younger than us, but he had just had a massive growth spurt. Now he was a head taller than Simon and much more buff. He even had the beginnings of a beard, although luckily, just before his Bar Mitzvah, he had finally cut the awful red thicket on his head down to a normal, handsome level. He’d always gotten along with Simon, who was actually interested in Mikey’s bizarre short stories about made-up fantasy creatures and helped him give them evolutionary histories and believable anatomy. Mikey wanted to be an author when he grew up. He mentioned that all the time.
“Yeah, just watch this,” said Al, jumping up. He had a goofy smile on his face and a dark circle on the top of his dinosaur pajamas that might have been drool or tears. He was the son of two physicists; he was named for Albert Einstein.
“Up!” said Al. Zev sprang onto his hind legs, his front legs outstretched like he was praying.
“Shake!” Al said, and shook one of Zev’s paws.
Zev jumped around a bit more, then fell down on all fours and let out a happy bark. Al sat back down and grinned at me. “Pretty cool, huh?”
“Yeah,” I said. I felt sick. Last night around midnight, Danielle had sent a group text to all the people who’d been checking in. I was lying on my bed staring at the big poster of the Sonoran Desert on my ceiling when my phone buzzed. Gail had made it through the spinal tap, which was apparently super dangerous for patients with swelling in the brain, and the doctor who’d flown in from Harvard was confident he would figure out the infection, and so Danielle wrote “now we can be hopeful,” and it was like I’d been emptied, I felt so light. I had never cried from relief before. I flipped open my Bat Mitzvah siddur and whispered in Hebrew, “We thank you for your wonders and gifts,” shoving each word past the knot in my throat, “which are with us at every moment.”
“Dad’s at the hospital,” said Danielle now, abruptly. “I’m supposed to stay near the phone in case someone calls.”
I nodded, but wasn’t sure why she was telling us this.
“See, what happened was, she was in an induced coma,” Danielle went on. “Which means they drugged her to bring down the blood pressure and swelling in her brain. Did I tell you this?”
I nodded again.
Danielle slid to the floor and propped herself up against the bookcase. I sat opposite her, my back against the side of the bed. “And so they kept saying they had to get rid of all the swelling before they could wake her up, right?” she said. “But it was just stupid, it was like a complete miscalculation, because she didn’t make it anyway and this way we didn’t even get to say goodbye. Not that I would’ve known what to say, but—”
And then it just kept going. We sat there on the carpet and she told us how all week her mom would smile with her eyes closed when they played Beatles songs for her on their iPods, and how some woman with a movie-star English accent called this morning from the hospital to say Gail had suffered a ruptured aneurysm overnight, and how offended the Harvard doctor sounded over the phone a little later, and how all the food in the hospital cafeteria smelled like lemon surface-cleaner, and how on Thursday night she’d overheard a young couple on the Metro going on and on about the phenomenal French restaurant they’d just eaten at and how they were both in a total food coma, and how she’d almost turned around and yelled in their faces but hadn’t, of course she hadn’t, and now really wished she had. I’d never heard her say that many words in a row.
Simon said, “We all thought your mom was awesome.”
I could hardly believe it. He probably hadn’t said a single word to Danielle in three years.
She just nodded slowly and said, “Yup.”
“Do you guys have plans for the summer?” Mikey asked after a long time. His voice had changed as fast as the rest of him. “Are you going on vacation?”
“No,” I said. I didn’t even have a job. A week before, I had walked into this butterfly greenhouse and applied to be a guide. Part of my idea was that Simon might do it with me, since he could identify literally thirty-something butterfly species, and the job would force him to talk to people. But he refused, and I went by myself to the interview and bombed it because it turned out the only reason they’d offered me one was that they’d looked at me and thought I could speak Spanish. “No,” I said again, “we’ll be here.”
Mikey nodded, then sat still. I tilted my head back onto the bed and found myself staring at the glow-in-the-dark stars, dull grey and flat in daylight. Then I looked down at my friends, frozen on the floor like dolls, and realized that here was exactly where we’d be.