"What's the world for you if you can't make it up the way you want."

-Jazz, Toni Morrison

The Album

The Album

The Wedding, Kabbalat Panim

At Ruchel’s wedding, Alex and her father Gary danced like religious men, right down to the black hats and black suits. In a photo from the kabbalat panim ceremony before the wedding chuppah, you couldn’t even pick them out from the crowd surrounding the groom. The photographer stood on a chair and caught the shot from above looking down. The men danced the groom in to meet his bride, who sat in an oversized wicker chair, like some Alice in Wonderland garden throne. The shot had Ruchel in the background, clapping, surrounded by roses woven into the lattice. Alex was frozen in mid-jump, facing the groom, bouncing backwards to Ruchel, smiling like a cartoon kangaroo about to do something naughty. Gary looked up at Alex, face caught in surprise, like how could he have known Ruchel’s wedding would be like this? And even Alex transformed. Everywhere he looked, Gary was faced with something revolutionary.

Alex’s suit was ill-fitting. So was Gary’s. But then so was everyone’s. Jackets hung either too loose or stretched too tight across shoulders. Black patent shoes scuffed at the toes from dancing at so many other weddings from that summer. Beneath the jackets and the hats, they are all sweating already, their pale faces but flushed cheeks. Their heavy glasses sliding down their noses. They were glossy-eyed from two-fisting the Scotch just before. The way they dance so close together as if to hold each other up, like dominoes just before they fall. Gary and Alex were the only ones not plastered. Dancing right in front of Yehuda, the soon-to-be son/brother-in-law. Yehuda smiling past it all, to the top rim of the wicker throne, to the glimpses of Ruchel draped in taffeta and lace. This is the whirlwind of a three-month courtship. Of a 19-year-old bride, her 21-year-old husband. Of their friends and family playing wedding, the favourite game of this season. Two kids preparing to play house when neither even knows how to use the washing machine. 

Susan, Ruchel and Alex’s mother, Gary’s wife, sat beside the bride, smiling her way through her misgivings. She did not make it into the frame of this particular picture. But she was there, leaning in towards the action, wondering doesn’t everyone, ultimately, want to watch their children in moments of utter joy?The wall of dancing men came towards them like a wave. Ruchel and Susan felt it like the final catch of breath before the water cascades overtop. Alex turned around and beamed to be in the middle of this all. All these costumes and assignments. All these people so confident in their roles. Joy inspires confidence. Susan caught Gary’s eye and then looked at their two children and wondered if she had ever seen them both so happy at the same time?

Susan’s Dress

Alex took shot after iPhone shot of Susan in navy blue gowns, cocktail dresses, matching tops and skirts. Ruchel was in New Jersey with her soon-to-be in-laws who were throwing an engagement party she insisted was last minute. Insisted Susan, Alex and Gary did not need to attend. There wasn’t much time and they had to find Susan a dress. Six weeks from engagement to chuppah. They had a lifetime to get to know Yehudah’s family.

“Text me,” Ruchel insisted. “From the shop. I want to see each dress you try on."

So Alex played messenger, every time Susan immerged from the changing room. Ruchel fired back comments: 

the hem can’t fall above the knee; 

that one shows too much collarbone;

 she has to have her shoulders covered; 

this shouldn’t be so hard!

Tell her to buy the bolero jacket, and have them stitch it to the straps so that it doesn’t shift by accident.

Alex edited every comment. “Rachel says that one looks great with the jacket. She likes the one with the higher neck. Can we go, Mum? Any of those look fine.”

Susan didn’t mind having to cover up. She’d had stomach cramps for weeks and bloating no matter what she ate. She hadn’t told Alex or Ruchel yet, because she had to get through this wedding, like layers and layers of wrapping paper, before she could reveal to her kids, her husband and herself, what was really going on. She knew better than to believe that her body wasn’t shutting down like her father’s did at her own wedding. His arm trembling as he walked beside her. Really, she was the one walking him up the aisle as he dragged his foot behind him, as he limped and she said to him, “Hold on. I’ve got you.”

Weddings have a wonderful way of monopolizing your life and pushing everything else to the side. So even when the doctor called and said, “I have the results from your ultrasound,” Susan listened and then answered, “You know I can’t deal with this until after Rachel’s wedding.”

“You can’t wait too long.”

“Well then, thank God these religious kids are in such a rush!”

The navy blue satin shone and crinkled as Susan turned in front of the mirror. There was just enough beading along the collar so that the dress didn’t look too heavy. The lace on the sleeves of the bolero jacket made her arms look slimmer. She told herself she would dress like this anyway, at her age. She wouldn’t want her back arms jiggling on the dance floor, her flesh swaying off time with her clapping hands. She was not covering up. She was containing herself. 

“Mum,” Alex said again. “Can’t I just tell her you’re getting the spaghetti strapped one and having the straps removed to make a tube top? Please? I want her to go ballistic at her stupid party.”

Susan smiled and purposefully didn’t answer. Alex never listened to her anyway. When they walked into the store, Susan had gently suggested that the shop carried a variety of styles for older and younger women. But Alex didn’t even look up from the phone. Let them poke at each other, Susan thought now, like they used to in the backseat of her minivan. Let them nag and whine, hurtling cyber insults while Rachel drank kosher white wine from the Galilee region; while Alex fiddled with the iPhone, snapped photos before Susan could change her mind. 

“There,” Alex said. “I’ll give her two minutes. She’ll panic but she won’t cry.”

“There’s no reason to make her cry,” Susan agreed, heading back into the change room. She suddenly needed to use the washroom urgently. Her face grew cold as she clenched her bowels, as she let the dress fall to the floor.

Susan heard the phone ding and then Alex laughing. “She’s writing in all caps. ‘DIDN’T YOU SEE MY TEXTS???’ Come on, Mum. Let me say ‘What texts?’ Let me tell her you’re getting the outfit on a final sale. I’ll tell her you look sexy.”

Susan breathed through the cramps and thought, at least they’re talking. 

“One day you two will need each other,” she managed. She didn’t bother to do up her pants. She heard Alex snort in response.            

When she came rushing out towards the bathroom, Alex looked up from the phone and called after her, “Aviva thinks this is hysterical. She says I should dye my hair blue before the ceremony. Come on, Mum! To match your dress!”

Alex’s hair

Aviva snapped the photo on her Smartphone when she finished. It was dramatic. Alex with a shaved head, long brown hair still tangled in the ponytail elastic now woven into the carpet of the bedroom floor. #3 all around, tapered at the top. Aviva learnt how to do the cut on YouTube. Alex looked like one of Ruchel’s soon-to-be nephews. Ruchel was sharing all their pictures on Facebook, six and seven-year-old boys crowding around her, squishing their faced into her lens. She used a selfie-stick for the reach, otherwise they wouldn’t have all fit in. 

Aviva sat beside Alex on the bed and took a selfie, their shaved skulls stuck together, looking up in mock surprise. 

“I’m posting this. I’m totally outing you,” Aviva said. 

Alex said, “Tag Ruchel.” Ruchel would be dress shopping, her phone vibrating in her purse. One of her almost-sisters-in-law grabbing it for her because Ruchel would be busy in the change room being snapped from the base of her neck to her tailbone into a dress. A white lace suit of armour. 

“Rucheleh,” the woman, with a name like Pessie or Perlie, might say. “Who’s this?”

Alex imagined Ruchel’s sinking heart, that look on her face when she comes out of the changing room, her tight lips, her mouth open with a million suggestions ready on her tongue. And then the picture, flashed up on the screen, you could practically hear Alex laughing, as if pointing right at her sister. Aviva had created the hashtag #meetwilliam.

“My cousin,” Ruchel would offer. Because there was never a point in denying their resemblance. Even without Alex’s hair. “He has strange friends.”

Aviva stepped toward Alex. Alex watched her bare feet nestled amongst the hair, her toes curling and flexing, gathering the strands into piles. Aviva was taller than Alex by half a head, even without the boots. That year she’d gone off meat and her lips had a grey tinge because of it. Alex reached up to trace them. They were dry and puckered like dates.

Aviva’s hand brushed over Alex’s fuzzy skull. Alex could feel the stunted hairs shifting under her fingers. Aviva murmured, “I like Will. Will is sexy.”

Mother and daughters

Ruchel sat on her mother’s living room couch, Alex on one side, Susan on the other. This picture would be best captured from the upstairs landing that looked over the living room/dining room, a feature unique to this model house in Thornhill, with the sloping ceiling, the wooden railing like an indoor balcony. A photographer perched up there would be at enough of a distance to capture the moment of Susan, flanked by her two girls, Ruchel swiping through pictures on her iPad of dresses she’d considered having them wear for the upcoming ceremony. Snapped at just the right moment, the photo would show Susan and Alex looking over Ruchel’s shoulder, just before Alex drew a face of disgust, or Susan’s eye widen in exaggerated support when Ruchel looks up at her pleading. One of those digital SLR cameras could click through a series of shots getting just the right one of all three focused on the same thing, at the same time, before their individual needs tear their attention apart. If she’d realized, Susan would have had Gary stay home from the office that day. He was always good at getting the girls to stand together, even if they were like magnets, pushing each other apart.

Alex hadn’t yet cut her hair. She wore it in a low ponytail. It was oily at the scalp from needing a wash. She wore her Montreal Canadiens Price jersey. Loose jeans torn at the knee. She’s picked at the threads from the tear when she snorted and said, “Like hell I’m wearing a dress.”

Ruchel didn’t react. She continued to swipe through the pictures methodically. She knew what Alex would say. “You don’t always have a choice. It’s an Orthodox shul. This is what women do.”

Alex folded her arms. Ruchel may not have been looking up, but Susan was. Susan caught the smirk spreading across Alex’s face. She said, “Don’t.”

Alex said, “Fuck. She already knows.”

Ruchel looked up then. “Please don’t swear. I’m not going to sit here if you insist on being filthy.”

Alex laughed, but Susan reached behind Ruchel and placed her hand on Alex’s shoulder, tilted her head, pleading. Alex would have continued, but she made a promise to Susan that she would try. So she tucked her lips tight around her teeth, widened her eyes at her mother, and yelled all the profanities she wanted to in her head.

“We’re going with silver, for the gowns,” Ruchel continued. “The nieces will wear their cream dresses with silver sashes. Ages ago, Yehuda’s sisters bought these dresses—Here, these ones—in all kinds of sizes. So now whenever there’s a wedding, they just choose a different colour ribbon. It’s brilliant. Last year there were four weddings in his family.”

“The expense alone!” Susan said. She knew a religious family, their neighbours, where the son got married, had a baby and was divorced all before he turned 22. The ex-daughter-in-law was originally from England. Someone told Susan she left with the baby girl for Israel. Now the boy sat in his parents’ backyard, smoking up in the middle of the day. Didn’t they meet and get engaged over one summer? Didn’t Ruchel even comment when they got divorced, “Oh yeah. They rushed into things.”

“What’s the rush?” Gary had pleaded when Ruchel and Yehuda called from New Jersey, three weeks before to tell them. It was the same question they asked Alex two months earlier when she said she was ready to transition. The same question Susan whispered on the phone to her doctor, earlier today when she got the call about the results. 

“This has to be dealt with soon,” the doctor insisted. “We don’t know how aggressive this can become.”

And now, it seemed to Susan, each of them was facing a change that they were powerless in stopping. So this moment on the couch was their last chance to sit together, mother/daughters, as polarized as they’ve always been, but at least they were here. Alex told her earlier that she was thinking of changing her name. She liked William. There was nothing ambiguous about it. She said she didn’t want anyone questioning who she really was.

Ruchel had recently mentioned a friend whose sister was seriously ill, and changed her name to try to fool the Evil Eye into handing her back her health. Susan had been considering a new name too. She always thought her name sounded meek. She wanted to be called something like Blaise, or Bryna. Something with a B, so that you have to use all the muscles in your mouth to pronounce it. Something that commanded effort.

“I’ve been thinking,” she told the girls, “about how you’ve both changed but stayed the same. How some things will be different moving forward but some things won’t. You know, we’re all learning to accept who we are.”

Alex snorted again. Ruchel rolled her eyes. She said, “I can’t tell anyone about Alex. No one I’m friends with would understand.”

“My friends can’t stand you either!”

Susan’s arm was still stretched out touching both her daughters from behind. They didn’t realize, but they both inched towards her on the couch, toward the hollow of her side and underarm. She thought, This shot. Right here. It’s the energy of all that tension just before everyone disperses, spinning off in all directions.

Sidura Ludwig is a writer living in Thornhill, Ontario, Canada. Her novel HOLDING MY BREATH was published in 2007 in Canada, the US and the UK. She was most recently a finalist in the 2017 Little Bird Writing Contest. Her work has appeared in Canadian and British publications, as well as on CBC Radio.

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