2017 Short Story Contest Winner
Updated: Nov 30, 2021
More Cousin's Club Than Country
by Rochelle Distelheim
My friend lost her hair many years before I lost my country. In both circumstances, I do not say lost, as one says when something has been misplaced, but lost as in someone has stolen something.
We met when she rang my door bell. Her daughter, five, six years old, eyes like black buttons, hung onto her mother’s skirt.. And so, I greeted a woman my age, just below fifty, more or less; short, wide, her skin the color of honey, as if the sun was her close companion, wearing a black caftan that swept in folds to the floor, a flowered scarf wrapped close around her head down to her eyebrows. Two big, bright black eyes keeping watch below.
We looked as if we lived on opposite planets, and I was not a drop surprised. My daily dress was not a dress, but dark cotton pants, a sweater or blouse, sometimes both. My hair I had cut short, parted down the middle; not severe, but also not something to be called fashionable.
I had brought to Jerusalem a trunk full of silk and velvet gowns, and long, ready-for-the-opera gloves, also sequins sewn on silk purses. Clothes for our lives in St. Petersburg, Russia, a life lived by some, but very few Jews: doctors, professors, like Yuri, my husband, or musicians, like myself, while every day one took caution to hide any scent one was Jewish. These beauties now lived inside my suitcase, while we followed a quiet, not yet feeling-at home-life. In Russia we spoke only to long-known friends. We closed any neighbor’s ears with music on the radio when we spoke of things Jewish. Who knew what unknown acquaintance could be a government agent, a Secret Service employee?
We had been living since six weeks in Jerusalem, and I was already on good terms with surprises on every street: little boys wearing keepas, skull caps, fringe from a prayer shawl floating out from under their shirts, their hair cut close, with a fat curl combed over each ear, running in the streets, kicking a ball, like they never thought that skull caps, curls and kicking balls didn’t go together.
Among other surprises was something not on the streets, but in the buses. Enter any Jerusalem bus on a raining day, and, if you are not carrying an umbrella, in the first five minutes someone, a woman, will ask, whispering in a voice everyone hears, do your children know you have left the house without an umbrella? And, if your stop is her stop, she and her umbrella will walk with you to where you are going.
No, do not refuse. Do not protest, do not pretend to love walking in the rain. She will not allow. Israel will not allow. A lesson that taught me we had come to a place that was more cousins’s club than country. The problem that remained for us was that, in this cousin’s club, we had no cousins, Yuri and I. We were a minority of three, our little family, tucked inside a country that is in itself a minority.
Back to my neighbor and her child. She asked, was it too early, did she interrupt? I knew who she was: Nachoma Chochani, from downstairs; husband, Yossi, from Morocco -- this information in ink on a white card pasted to their mailbox. I had seen her large, noisy family everywhere: four boys, very tall, very muscled, wearing black leather, who came and went on motorcycles, great, throbbing machines, at all hours of the day or night. She had also three quiet, thank God, graceful girls of assorted ages, including the one peeking out from behind her mother in my house at that minute.
The husband: short, square, with a moustache that crossed his face from ear to ear, and curled upward at the endings; also a first-time sight for me.
I invited her in. Yes, yes, I was alone. Yuri was in synagogue, his new, every morning routine. Galina, our daughter, was at class in Hebrew University. My guest looked around, as though seeking proof that I was telling the truth. “Do you want my husband to be home?”
“Why would I want for your husband to be at home?”
This woman had just turned into someone interesting. “A cup of coffee?” I knew this much about Israeli hospitality; it comes with food, something sweet, if possible. Mother and daughter followed me into the parlor. “Please,” I said, “sit.” She smiled, she nodded, and picked the almost-white sofa, just short of being two weeks old, my favorite new piece of furniture, and sat, her little girl on her lap.
Brewing the coffee in the kitchen, I listened for sounds from the parlor. Silence. She could not be picking up and putting down the painted mamushka dolls, the gold-inlaid lacquer boxes, my French porcelain ballet dancers. Those objects would tinkle or clink. I stacked the coffee pot, the cups, sugar, cream, and a plate of cookies on a tray, remembered milk for the child, and went back to the parlor.
The little girl, Avital, her mother called her, took charge of the cookies, munching and catching crumbs in her cupped hand, peeking out at me from between her fingers, her black eyes puddles of curiosity. I sat down on the new sofa next to my guest, who sipped, turning and twisting for a better view of the piano, the nest of small wooden tables, the plants that feathered all the corners. Then she turned to me. “Your home does not look like the usual Israeli home,” she said, in her terrible Hebrew.
There we were matched. My Hebrew was at a low level, even after six weeks in an
ulpan, a school where you live, while women with endless patience teach the language between talks on how much you will love Israel, plus how lucky you were to be in Israel.
Gargles and scrapings came from the back of my throat, mixed with a lot of humming.
Confusing the word for furniture, reheet, with reheetem, to sing, and starting all over, I explained that my hope for the furniture was not to look like an Israeli home: dark -- khashookh – or heavy -- kaved.
She nodded to show that she understood, but there was no smile, no look of agreement. She put her cup down and, probably thinking that most people in Israel were a little strange, so why not her neighbor, said, “I have been watching you.” Then she leaned back onto a sofa pillow, waiting for that information to sink through my head. “You are not a usual looking Israeli, your house could not be a usual Israeli house.”
I was not happy to hear this. Watching me? This smelled of Russia, the KGB. Like a sponge, she soaked up my discomfort. Putting her hand over mine, she said, could she please -- her complexion moving toward rosy now – could she ask from me a favor? “In my country, no one asks a stranger to do for you a favor. If you fell down in the street in Rabat, first they pick your pockets and take over your purse, then they pry out your eyes, and then, maybe, they would call an ambulance. But, I thought, that lady looks like someone I can trust, and ….” She hesitated, raising her shoulders in a “Please-think-kindly-of-me” look.
Good and bad news. Always nice to bring up trust, but a favor, what kind? Avital was making wiggling motions I recognized. “I think she wants the toilet,” I said, grateful for time to think before facing her favor. I pointed. Mother and daughter went into the bath-room, and I cleared up the dishes, trying to decide which way I would go. No, if the favor put me in the company of the people who my daughter and I called The Men in Black, the super religious. From day one in this place I knew that to mix me with them was mixing fire with boiling oil.
Too many prayings by these men to thank God He had not made them a woman, a difficult way of thinking, or, perhaps I mean of believing. The two are not the same. Yuri, I am happy to say, was not a man to make too many rulings: do it my way and, on most days, I was both a doubter and a believer.
Mother and daughter returned. I gave Avital a packet of cards with pictures of animals, and the mother described the favor. “Hair. I want to buy new hair.”
“You don’t have?”
She untied her head scarf. Her hair, rich in the color of dark chocolate, hung in ragged bits around her face; the back was worse. I diagnosed that it was cut away by someone with blunt scissors in a dark room. Avital patted her mother’s bare neck. “Before my wedding, my hair was my blessing, heavy…” Nachoma rubbed her fingers together.
“…down to here.” She pointed to her elbow. “The women in the mikva cut the day before my wedding. Nobody asked how high, how low, just cut. Now I…” She scissored the air with two fingers. “…when it needs.”
I asked how she could do this to herself, what was she thinking? She smiled a smile that was much more a promise she would soon be crying, and called it bad luck in men. First, a father who pushed her to marry Yossi, who said he was rich, but was the opposite, and insisted on a marriage wig, which she managed to misplace these many years later in the move to Israel. Second, a husband like Yossi. “And now…” She laughed, a dry, sad hiccup, and Avital offered her mother a cookie. “I can’t go out with my hair, I can’t go out without my hair.”
A puzzle, I agreed. “But why now?”
I see in the movies…”
“Movies?” Nachoma and Yossi at the movies, munching popcorn, chatting with strangers in the audience during the intermission, always an intermission, and, an Israeli thing to do, talking with people sitting nearby about what you have just seen. What do you think he meant when he said such and such at the end? Or, arguing, another strong Israeli custom: Did you find that automobile chase funny? Did you believe that girl when she said she doesn’t love her sister’s husband?
Yossi, she said, loved French gangster stories, snarling, dangerous men who took advantage of three, four naïve women at a time. If these heros resorted to murder, well, a movie wasn’t real life. She loved any film that had beautiful women with beautiful hair.
“Their husbands run their hands through it.” She clasped hands to chest in a show of ecstasy. Avital, now sitting on her mother’s lap, spilled her milk and whimpered.
“Religious women?” I mopped up the spreading white puddle.
“Why not religious? God loves beauty.”
I huffed skepticism.
“You don’t believe?”
“God doesn‘t love milk with roasted chicken. He doesn’t love cheese on a turkey sandwich. Who’s to say how He feels about beauty?”
I must admit, and not with pride, my new friend looked startled. For one moment I wanted to repeat for her the conversation I had with Yuri that day, six months ago, when he came home -- when our home was in St. Petersburg -- and told Galina and me he wanted to live like a Jew. Me, I wanted to find a way to go on living as a human.
“Why now,” I’d asked, “and how?”
In Russia, being Jewish was treated as a birth defect. The less Jewish a Jew was, the safer he was. Deny, deny. We became survival artists. Our work papers -- Yuri was a mathematician at the Academy, I was a piano teacher -- carried false gold stamps bought with enough rubles to buy a new automobile. But this was now 1993, the old Soviet Union was dead. Yeltsin, when he was President, was too drunk to bother with Jews and, after him came Gorbachev, a sweet man, but too soft to survive, who preached perestroika, openness, and, miracle of miracles, told Jews, go, go, if you want.
Yuri wanted. For him, living in the new Russia was not a happiness; he wanted to live among Jews in Israel. For me, the question was: how does one live like a Jew? One must have precedence, one must have instruction. More complicated: one must have feeling.
For now, we were olim, new Israelis, but olim does not evoke the sensation of caviar beads crushed against one’s tongue, or sour cream over cinnamon-scented blinis the size of a thumb, steaming Black Crimean tea, sipped while seated at the stained glass windows of Café Novotny, overlooking the lights edging the Neva River embankment.
I could not express this unreasoned longing to a woman I had met one half hour ago. Instead, I asked how could I help her to get hair, and stopped mid-sentence, realizing, suddenly I was a bus lady offering help to another woman, a strangely happy feeling, even though on most days being happy in Israel has not yet caught up with me.
A friend had told her of a wig genius, whose shop was in her apartment near Zion Square, not far. Her friend couldn’t accompany her; bad blood between her and the wig maker about money. “Would you come with?” She took a folded newspaper from her purse and held it out to me. “I want to look like this.”
I recognized the woman in the newspaper. “Leah Rabin,” I said, “the Prime minister’s wife. A beautiful woman, I saw her on the television.” I studied Leah Rabin’s picture. Sun glasses, dark hair brushed into a smooth pageboy, a special looking suit, the ribbon trim, the buttons, anyone could see how expensive. Plus a shoulder bag with chain links, an armful of bracelets, an easy, confident smile, a woman sure of who she was, surrounded by admirers. How did she, I wondered, live such a free-looking life among those men in black?
She knew a secret, maybe, she knew a special way to be true to herself and also to the rules.
I looked at my new friend. No wig would do that for squat, round Nachoma, but everyone, even a woman with too many pounds and not enough beauty, was entitled to have dreams. And also this, not easy to admit, but with me the truth always has to come out: If I could be help to Nachoma, and this includes not meeting with Yossi, I could make my own small strike against one small man in Black.
The following afternoon, Avital in day care, Nachoma and I walked fifteen minutes to the Zion Square neighborhood where, on the second floor of a white stucco building, above a jewelry shop, an antique dealer, a travel company, the wig lady lived. The sign on her door read, “Hair Creations Made to Order. Enter To Be Beautiful.”
She was waiting, a wisp of a woman, all energy and sharp elbows, piercing blue eyes, a pointing chin, pale brown hair pulled back in a complicated knot. She wore what is called a hostess robe, blue mixing with purple dots, enormous gold hoop earrings. I had seen such unusual looking women in Russia, but usually in a fortune-telling booth, or at a carnival reading from a crystal ball. “Chana Lipkin, from Latvia,” she said, like it was all one long word, beckoning us in.
The furnishings were too little for the big space. We were pointed toward a long white dressing table built against a mirror wall, and opposite, glass shelves holding heads, each one wearing a wig -- short, long, red, black, gray; wigs with bangs, with headbands, with sequined veils, all the heads staring at us out of blank eyes, their puckered lips waiting, I thought, for a lover’s kiss.
Chana waved at the display. “Plenty choices, something for everyone. Sit.” Nachoma sat down at the dressing table, I pulled up the chair next to her. Chana offered a wig of tight yellow curls, looking like a dust mop. Nachoma turned terrified eyes to me.
“Mrs. Lipkin,” I said.
“Call me Chana.” Her mouth, not her eyes, smiled. “My customers are my friends, my friends are my customers.”
“Mrs. Chochani wants a wig to match her hair.”
“Certainly, but sometimes it is fun to have a little something extra, to surprise.”
“Surprises cost, my friend is on a budget.” I turned to Nachoma. “Show her.” She removed her head scarf. The heat had plastered her jagged hair behind her ears, against her forehead. She lowered her head and shook it, hard. The jagged hair sprung up into the shape of damp broom ends.
Chana closed her eyes, tapping her finger against her forehead. The eyes opened. “Ladies, ladies, what was I thinking? I have just the one, perfect.” She disappeared behind a curtain hung over an alcove at the end of the room. We heard her pulling out boxes, dropping boxes, murmuring, “Lo, lo.” No. Out she popped, clutching a curly, dark brown wig. Not a dust mop, more a silky feather boa.
“You like?” she asked Nachoma.
Nachoma looked, then whispered to me: “Pretty, but too curly.”
“Not a problem,” Chana said. “What is curly, I make straight; what is straight, I curl.
Better than God.”
“Also more expensive,” I said. Her smile slipped. She settled the wig onto Nachoma’s head, arranging it over the jagged, shorn ends. “There…” Stepping back. “Ladies,
ladies, ladies…” flashing a smile at the mirror, then onto Nachoma, who was sitting in stunned silence. I admit, and even now I remember like it was yesterday, she looked like she was swallowed up by the collection of dark curls falling across her forehead; two eyes, a nose, a mouth showing up on her face, but all, even together, not a competition for the hair.
Nachoma looked at me, at Chana, then back to the mirror, disappointment and sadness written up and down her face. “Is it possible, a little less…no, a little more,” she said.
My one look told me the whole story, no second chapters needed. “My friend wants simple,” I said, ’‘her husband doesn’t like…” Nachoma’s eyes were squeezed shut. Chana tapped her foot. “He doesn’t like…” I shrugged my shoulders to suggest that Yossi was, after all, only a man. “…too much drama.”
Chana nodded. “Of course, a little shaping.” Tugging at Nachoma’s head, she gathered the wig in her fist. “And styling to suit your face. Look, here…” Holding the wig inside-out. “Everything is real hair, from Russia, from Poland, Ukraine, Yugoslavia; Israel, as well. Strong young girls, healthy girls, I pay top dollar. Look.” Nachoma looked. “The linings, silk, the hair knotted exactly. You think this kind of work grows overnight?” She waggled the wig under Nachoma’s nose. Nachoma sniffed. “Not a ripple of an odor. Perfume, you smell, the sweetness of soft, young skin, you smell.”
I smelled a high price about to be delivered. I leaned over and sniffed at the wig.
“Smoke. Cigarette smoke, I smell.”
Nachoma pulled the newspaper clipping from her purse. “This.” Chana studied the photograph of Leah Rabin. “Is it possible?”
“Anything is possible, if…” Chana’s chin grew pointier. “…if someone is willing to pay.” I tried to picture this woman on a bus, offering to walk with you out of the rain.
Nachoma pulled a clutch of paper money from inside her dress, somewhere in the direction of her brassiere. She looked at me, her eyes overflowing with what I could feel was her hope. “Here.” She thrust the bundle toward me.
“One thousand, five hundred shekels,” Chana said. “A bargain, ask my ladies.”
“Nine hundred and fifty,” I said. Nachoma stood up, a mountain of chopped off ends, her face a mountain of misery. Chana put her hands on Nachoma’s shoulders, easinged her down into the chair. Then she click-clacked across the room, opened a closet and reached inside. Flipping pages, she brought out a scrapbook. “Look.” A wedding scene, the mother of the bride, the mother of the groom, the bride, the bridesmaids, all wearing wigs; short, curly, straight, long.
“This bride, this groom, are they still married?” I asked.
“I know hair, not sociology. These days the young girls, not like in our time.” Chana snapped her fingers. “Easy go, easy come.”
“So,” I said, “they’re divorced.” Anything to force a cheaper price.
“Not important. My wigs are made to last two, three weddings.”
Nachoma had her fisted hands tight against her closed eyes. “Nine hundred shekels,” I said, “our final offer.” I heard a heavy breathing.
Chana tapped her foot, as though signaling to someone in the next room. “You are a hard woman.”
“But fair,” I said.
She lit a cigarette, inhaled, pondered. I felt her sharp edges softening.
“Also, God sometimes has specials,” I said, “for special Jews.”
“You don’t say. “ She squeezed her cigarette against a china dish. Nachoma buried her face in her handkerchief.
I whispered over Nachoma’s head. “My friend’s husband is a special person, descended from a famous family of important people, Ethiopians.
“Ethiopians,” Chana repeated, “what is so special, and where is this Ethiopia, I’m not familiar. I know most things, but I stop with Ethiopia, you should excuse.”
“Ethiopia is a very special kind of Jewish,” I said, pushing to remember something I’d read in the newspaper. “Like a gift from God, lost Jews, no one knew they were there…” Some things sounded more true as you spoke them out..
Nachoma sent me a look of terror peppered with despair. Chana tapped her foot and puffed. “…..until someone came upon them in the desert,” I went on, “wandering, and the President of Israel flew there special to bring them home to Israel. Surprise, surprise. It was in all the newspapers.”
Nachoma uncovered her eyes and looked out at us. “Surely,” I went on, “you have read of these people. Everyone honors them, they have come through so much, imagine, just imagine…”
Chana crushed her cigarette into a small dish. “I get your intention.”
“And this includes the shaping up,” I said.
“This includes you don’t cut the price after.”
“Nachoma,” I said, holding the money out. She nodded, barely. I counted out five hundred shekels. Turning to Chana: “This now, the other money after delivery.”
Nachoma pulled in her breath. “In one week,” I added, “my friend has a wedding to attend.”
I heard Nachoma’s breath come down.
“You are a hard lady,” Chana said, and folded the money into her small leather purse.
“But fair,” I said, “My friend gets her beauty, you get a generous price.”
Chana harrumphed. “You came, I never got maybe references.”
“References? From who, about what? You see me here, you see my friend, her hair.
You see what must be done. … “ Chana put a match to yet one more cigarette, and looked what I would call the evil eye. At me, especially, but also at Nachoma. whose face was one big smiling. A Russian from Russia is a specialist in recognizing evil eyes.
Her face crackled with suspicions. Poor Chana, I thought. . So talented at making business, so barren of the meanings behind everyone’s frightenings. “We will come back in one week for my friend’s hair.” I gathered my purse, scarf, and small book of names and addresses.
“Think of this like you were a lady on the bus in the rain, and you helped out another lady, a Jew, who knows, who could maybe be a cousin to you…” I helped Nachoma into her coat. “…a cousin you never knew you had.”
© 2017 Rochelle Distelheim