“Shiksa,” Fiction

by Meg Coffey Bennett

   In the first year after his death, I had remembered my father often. Or at least I’d hear his voice frequently, reminding me that my mother loved violets or to check in on my brother. It’s your responsibility, I’d hear him say. Just take care of them. And usually I did. But he was gone over a decade and I heard him only sometimes now, his words distant as the call of jays at dawn. And so when the woman sitting beside me at Passover Seder asked politely about my family, it surprised me that I skimmed over my mother (tanned, in Florida) and spoke of my father instead.
    “I was a little afraid of him, I guess.” I looked down the table at the empty chair, left for Elijah, and stared that direction as I continued. “Not in a scary way . . . maybe not afraid at all, really. He was just so smart. And I never knew what to say, how to behave.”
    “There’s a man on TV who has a real estate empire. His son works for him and he never lives up to the father’s expectations. ‘What? You sold this for $4 million? It was worth at least $5.’ And the son cowers and. . . .”
    “No, not like that either. He didn’t berate me. My father was really very kind.”
    Sarah had green eyes, enormously long lashes, black hair with purple streaks, turquoise rings on her fingers. I was grateful when she changed the subject, telling me where each ring had come from: Mexico City, Arizona, Guatemala, listing them as she had listed the authors I must read: Neruda, Friere, Borges. In Spanish, of course. And the teachers she had had in college: Jesamond Beentoharvard, Joseph Somebodyorother. And the places she had visited and lived in: Moscow, Cuba, Paris.
    This sort of listing struck me as the opposite of my father, who never bragged though he had graduated with honors from Yale, both undergrad and med school. In his later years he’d turned down the chairmanship of his obstetrics department because he wanted to practice, not politicize, medicine. He was adamant about modesty: better to minimize than to overstate. Yet in that minimizing was perhaps some snobbery.
    “Are you Jewish?” Sarah asked.
    “A Jewish wannabe. Like Madonna.”
    “I have no idea.”
    Sarah touched my hair.
    “Beautiful. I am too afraid to let my hair grow out to gray.”
    Her purple streaks glinted in the low light of the temple. A raven, I thought. Or a starling. Some sort of shimmering bird.
    I turned back to Asa, sitting beside me. He had brought me to the Seder. It will be good for you, he’d said when he invited me to join him. You don’t have to be Jewish. We worked the same shift at a dockside cafe. He pulled espressos; I steamed the milk. I liked how he dressed in immaculate thrift shop clothes but kept his hair hippie-long. He said he admired my sense of humor, though I wondered if that was a compliment — or a joke in itself. Still, he seemed to think we had things in common — his gregarious sparrow to my furtive wren — and I appreciated that.
    Around the room the others clustered in their own groups, too. A family with three children and grandmother at one table. A parliament of old-timers nearby. The Rabbi sat next to the synagogue president, a new year-rounder, sitting yoga-tall beside her partner, an ex-nun.
    When Sarah left for a moment to pour wine for the Rabbi, Asa leaned closer.
    “Be careful. She is crazy,” he warned.
    “I know,” I whispered back. “You already told me that.”
    “Remember what she accused me of.”
    “Why is she sitting with us then? We sat down first.”
    “I know her family . . . but be careful.”
    “She’s trying to divide us.”
    “Don’t believe her. And don’t tell her too much.”
    “I’m just being polite.”
    He rolled his eyes.
    “Your polite gets you into big trouble.”
    “It got me here.”
    “Funny girl,” he said.
    What had Sarah accused Asa of? Giving her phone number to his friend who then stalked her. Unnerved by her threats, Asa had called the police and asked their advice. Ignore her, said the officer at the desk. She’s harmless. Sarah’s family owned a great deal of property, leased much of it to businesses that kept the tourists coming. She and her widowed mother lived just outside town, in a catbird-gray bungalow perched over the Sound.

    From the middle. You take the matzoh in the middle and break it in two. I wanted to follow the instructions properly.
    “There’s an even number,” I whispered to Asa. “What now?”
    “Shiksa.” Sarah tapped my forearm gently.
    “Just make do,” instructed Asa.
    “But how can I take the middle one if there isn’t a middle?”
    Sarah took the matzoh that was closest, snapped it in half.
    “Here,” she said. “Afikomen. Now dip your finger in the Passover wine.”
    I had done this before, at another Seder years ago. Although then we’d tipsily skipped most of the readings. Not much previous experience to draw from there. I dunked my pointer into the wine and dabbed the best I could.
    “An artist? Are you an artist?” asked Sarah, wiping her finger on her napkin.
    “Oh no.”
    “But the drops of wine. So artistic.”
    Asa’s wine had pooled into a Rorschach butterfly. Sarah’s had melded into an imperfect ellipse. My drops were patted into a flowery circle.
    “Oh! Not on purpose. I didn’t understand.”
    “No, no. It’s fine. A Picasso.”
    My dainty pattern looked ridiculous. The wine represents the Pharaoh’s slaughter of the children. Infanticide. Blood doesn’t fall in perfect little orbs. It splatters everywhere.
    “Don’t worry,” said Asa.
    “Shiksa,” teased Sarah again. Then seeing my dismay, she added, “It’s okay. Really.”
    My father would have shaken his head at first. How could his daughter be doodling with the Passover wine? Respect for others was essential to him. Courtesy, civility, deference to tradition. I never wanted to displease him. He loved me, of course, I knew that — and he was proud of me for this or that small achievement. And yet I always felt a slightly rumpled, secondhand version of his expectations. Once when I was four or so, I had climbed into the baby swing meant for my little brother. It was hung from the old crabapple tree in our backyard and I had longed to sit in it and soar up into the sky. Giggle toes! Chirpy boy! I had my own swing, yes. Sturdy and flat, it hung unevenly and I could fly forward only a few feet before waddling back. My brother’s swing was faster, or so I thought, and I knew I could fit into it. I was small, too, right? A child still. And he was a big bubba boy. My brother was inside napping, and I was alone. I grasped the ropes and hurdled myself over the seat back. I slid down into the swing and lowered the safety bar. I fit. And then I saw my father approaching me. Unsmiling. Eyes fixed. Get out. He reached for me. Now. He lifted me upward. I expect more of a big girl like you. He put me down and walked away.
    Outside the synagogue the night was deep blue. I scanned the brightly lit room again. Asa, beside me, suppressing a yawn. Sarah, to my other side, alert and prepared. The families I had noticed earlier looked sleepy, sweetly roosted on the high branches of tradition, happy to be together. The synagogue president had nestled close to her partner, and they were reading the text intently. The Rabbi looked quite young to me now, downy mustache, dark feathery hair, not a speck of gray. He began to read, but I had lost my place in the Haggadah so I pretended to follow along instead.
    Who sits in the empty chair?
    I have no idea.
    Who sits in the empty chair?
    My father turns around.
    Who sits in the empty chair?
    My father begins to smile.
    Who sits in the empty chair?
    My father laughs gently.
    Who sits in the empty chair?
    My father takes my hand.
    Who sits in the empty chair?
    I look around the room again.
    Who sits in the empty chair?
    All our loved ones and then some.

   A longtime resident of the East End, Meg Coffey Bennett has a master’s of fine arts degree in writing and literature from Stony Brook Southampton. She teaches in the Educational Opportunity Program at Stony Brook University as well as for Glory Going Green, a not-for-profit children’s program based in Greenport.