A story by Yona Silverman
Tziona stops going to school when she decides that the earth is about to fall out of orbit. In August, she begins refusing to sleep alone, so I lay with her every night for hours until her eyes close and I can hear her breathing deeply. In the mornings when I go into the girls' room to wake them she is already up, always, lying in bed and facing the wall, shivering a little. By November she is wetting the bed at night.
"You're back," she says most days, sitting up and unclenching her fists when I walk in.
"Of course I'm back," I say.
"It's the monsters," Tziona tells me, when I ask. "If I make a noise at night when you're not there, they kill me." I put up invisible monster signs, made of the ink that mommies and monsters can see, and she watches as I paint them directly onto the wall with a new paintbrush we chose out together for the purpose. At first I think they're helping, but in less than a week she is having accidents again. I say maybe she should just sleep with us all night, or maybe I should stay in her bed, but Ezra thinks this is a bad idea. We are already dealing with all of this when the orbit stuff starts. Still, Tziona is seven. She can afford to miss one day of classes, or two, I think, and though I spend a few minutes trying to get her out of bed, I end up just letting her say she has a stomachache. After three days I get nervous, and I have things to do that I can't do with her home, so on the fourth morning I try and put my foot down.
"You have to get up, Tziona," I say. "You don't have a choice." But she doesn't even move, just looks at me and looks away.
"I don't think it's safe," she says.
"Of course it's safe," I say. "Would I want you to do anything not safe?"
Liat, who is a sound sleeper and is always congested from allergies and asthma, is wheezing softly in her bed.
"You may not understand," Tziona says. She turns back over and looks at me, and the areas under her eyes are dark in a way that's not appropriate for a girl. Her hair is knotty.
"I'm your mother. I think I know as much about the gravitational orbit of things as you do."
She is small and scared, wrapped up in her comforter, and I have to get Liat up and dressed and ready so that she doesn't miss the bus. When I try and pull Tziona out of bed and she starts kicking, I grab Liat's outfit from the dresser and take her into the dining room to put on her clothes. Ezra always brings the girls down to the bus, and when he sees that Tziona still is not up he gives me a look, and is going to start really yelling, but then I point to Liat and he just shakes his head. "This is not okay," he whispers. "So you get her out," I say. "She doesn't listen to me," he says, and picks up his briefcase and Liat's little knapsack, and slams the door when they leave.
Once she realizes she isn't going to be made to go, Tziona gets out of bed, and comes into the living room.
"I'm feeling a little better," she says. "Not good, but better. What are we doing today?"
"We're not doing anything," I say.
"Well, can I sit here with you?" I nod, and I continue reading my book, and she picks up one of hers. When the cleaning woman arrives I tell Tziona that I'm going to the gym for a while, and then for coffee with a friend, and I'll be back soon.
"You can't go," she says. "Please."
"I have to," I say. "Seriously, kiddo."
"But we're just hanging in space, mommy," she says. She is gulping for air, getting ready to have a tantrum. I feel panicky.
"Whether I'm here or not, we're hanging in space." I tell the housekeeper that I'm going out, that I'll be back in two or three hours.
"Please call if there are any problems," I say.
"Yes, yes," Faye says. "Of course."
When I am at the door Tziona runs and grabs my legs, wrapping her arms around me and screaming.
"You can't leave me. It's not fair." I pull her off, and close the door as firmly as I can, holding the knob tight as I lock the top lock with my key. Even in the elevator down, I can hear her wailing.
Outside it is bright and cold, and the doorman warns me to button up when he lets me out. The subway station is less than two blocks from the apartment, but before I get there, my cell phone rings. It's our own number.
"Mrs. Grossman, come home," Faye says over the phone. I can hear the shrieking in the background. She is not a nanny, just someone to clean the house in the mornings, because I am bad at it.
"What?" I ask.
"She's sick. Very sick."
I turn around, and walk towards the building. When Jorge opens the door again, he smiles.
"Back so soon?" he asks.
"I forgot something upstairs," I say, not smiling back. Tziona is on the dining room carpet, writhing.
"Very sick," Faye says, standing nervously in the hallway, the vacuum turned off at her side.
Tziona has cried so hard she has thrown up.
Ezra thinks Tziona is being spoiled, so even though he isn't usually around when the girls are awake in the evening, he gets home early from work that fourth day, and Tziona has moved from her bedroom into ours, and is watching TV under the covers. He goes in, without stopping to say hello to Liat and I who are finishing dinner, and I can hear the voices on the television shut up. Fifteen minutes later he is back, his forehead scrunched and veiny.
"I sent her to bed," he says. He gestures that Liat should go.
"Are you done, Li?" I ask. She shakes her head and picks up a macaroni with her hand and tosses it into her mouth.
"I'm still really hungry," she says, puffing out her round cheeks so they are swollen with air. "Can you please pass the trees?" I scoop some overcooked broccoli onto her plate.
"So we'll go into the other room," Ezra says. "Andy."
I get up, and if it was Tziona she would have a fuss, but Liat just continues humming, and mushing her broccoli into her noodles.
"What happened?" I ask when we get to the entry foyer. He is still wearing his shoes, and he bends down and unties them, pushing them under the breakfront.
"She said she won't go tomorrow, either," he says.
"I take her to therapy Friday afternoons, anyway," I say. "And it's a short school day."
"I don't think this therapy is working."
"So what do you want to do?"
"I'll wake her up tomorrow."
Liat comes in, and tells Ezra that she has a song to teach him. I leave the room, and I hear her asking him why he's home.
"I wanted to see my girls," he says, and then they both laugh at something, him deeply amused, Liat high and giddy. Tziona is in a ball under her covers. I get in bed with her, and she shifts into me, her face wet and slimy. Ezra comes in about an hour later, and Liat is bathed and naked.
"Maybe you will lie with me tonight?" Liat says in a squeaky voice, tapping my shoulder.
"Not tonight," I say.
"I'll lie with you tonight, pumpkin," Ezra says. He turns off the light, and gets in bed with her, so that all four of us are in the same room, but after Liat starts wheezing I hear the creak of the floorboards as he leaves. I don't get up until morning, and Ezra doesn't bother trying to wake Tziona up, just silently takes Liat by the hand when she is done eating her cereal, and ignores me as he closes the front door.
In the psychiatrist's office in the afternoon, Liat and I build a tower out of blocks while Tziona talks with the door left a crack open, so that she can see me.
"We're building to the sky," Liat says, and then knocks her structure down a few seconds later. The blocks crash around her, and she laughs and laughs. Ezra insists that she clings to him and not me because when she was born, she saw that I was already taken, so she just sort of accepted the leftovers, but the reality is that she doesn't cling to anyone. When Tziona was a baby she would cry for hours, no matter what we did, and if we weren't paying attention to her sometimes she would just go limp, to scare us. Liat really almost never cried.
"She's the good baby," Ezra used to say. Tziona was still tiny at that point, but not too tiny to maybe understand.
"Tziona is passionate," I would explain to whoever was listening. "She was a personality from the moment I had her."
When the door opens Tziona runs out, escaping.
"We should talk about things," Dr. Marshall says, her hands fidgeting in front of her. She wears a pearl necklace and fancy earrings, and skirts so expensive that I am always surprised to see her playing dollhouse on the floor with Tziona. She is supposedly one of the best specialists in children's anxiety in the city, but she has no kids herself, though she is older than I am, and married.
"They'll play out here," the doctor says. "We can talk in my office. You guys are the last of the day." Now we leave the door shut in the opposite direction, so that we can keep a small eye on the two of them.
"What's going to happen?" I ask, when I have sat down, in the lowest voice possible.
"The orbit stuff is nothing to be worried about, specifically. It's just more of the same. She's an anxious kid." This is not news. "And of course, extremely intelligent. Still, it's just anxiety that if she's not with you, things will fall apart. We can work on it. But, in terms of school, we have immediate problems and immediate options." She starts going on about medication and behavioral techniques, and I nod, and nod. "If I were you, I would take her to school on Monday. Don't wait for the bus. Just bring her yourself. My guess is, she won't act out as much in front of her friends."
"Maybe." I'm doubtful. Dr. Marshall can tell. In the other room it sounds like the girls are about to argue, but then I hear Tziona laugh, and then Liat, and I relax.
"If it doesn't work on Monday morning, then call me," the doctor says. "This happens. Tziona's not the only kid with these kinds of separation issues."
"I know. It's normal." She stands up and I do too, and she puts her arm on my shoulder.
"It's not normal, Andrea." I feel myself blushing. "It's fine, and treatable, and she'll be okay, but it's something we need to keep working on."
"Of course, of course." She writes out a prescription form, and runs through the safety concerns of giving this drug to kids. "I highly recommend it. It works."
When we leave the office, Tziona comes over and takes my hand. Liat, who is not yet five and has never had a therapy appointment, kisses Dr. Marshall's arm before we go outside.
In front of the building, there is a squashed bird by a bus station.
"Icky," Liat says, pointing. I put my hand out to hail a cab.
"It's not just gross," Tziona says. "It's dead."
"Like mommy's daddy," Liat says. My father died when I was 18, well before the girls were born, years and years ago.
"Yeah," I say. "Like your grandpa." Both of Ezra's parents are alive, as is my mother.
"Do you still miss grandpa?" Tziona asks a few seconds later, after the taxi comes and I have gotten both girls inside and buckled. I tell the driver our address, and think for a few seconds.
"I don't miss him exactly," I say, and this is really true, especially since he has been dead for more of my life than he was alive. Though I don't believe in God, really, not in the concrete way Ezra does, I wish I could, and I want them to be able to, if they want. It is something I'm hoping Ezra can give them, if he tries hard enough. "There is a part of him, I think, that is still alive, even if he's dead."
"Which part?" Liat asks. Tziona is playing with her ear, folding the soft top down and up again. "His head?"
I start laughing, and cannot stop.
"No, idiot," Tziona says. "Not his head. His soul in heaven."
"Something like that," I say. "Not a real piece of him. Just a piece of him that's not imaginary, but invisible."
"Mommy," Tziona says. "If you get to heaven before me, will you wait at the door for me to get there, before you go in?"
I see, for a moment, heaven as my daughter does. One big entry foyer in front of a vast world of cloud and candy.
"Of course," I say. "There's no question I'll wait at the door."
In my mind, I recognize the problems with this; the entry foyer crowded with generations of mothers waiting for their children.
I want to explain it all to her. Explain that I do not have it within me to separate her from me. I direct the driver to take us to Broadway and not West End. Sometimes, next to Liat, Tziona seems so big. I need to remind myself that she is a small girl. Even when she is not having a fit, she is still young.
"We need to pick up some medicine at the drugstore," I say. "And then we'll go home."
"Can we have ice cream?" Tziona asks.
"We're going to have Shabbat dinner later," I say. "With dessert."
"Please, mommy?" Liat asks, and I am going to say no, because the whole point is I have to set limits, and be firm, but when we get out of the cab Tziona doesn't cling to me. Instead, she and Liat start running towards the drugstore, shoelaces dragging against the pavement.
Of course I will let them get ice cream. Ice cream after ice cream until ice cream is no longer mine to give or take away.