Friday, March 14, 2008

The Unmarried Sister

A story

She turns toward me, her face beaming with joy. She stands upon the podium, the lights shining upon her, while the assistant fusses around her, straightening the hem of her dress. “Do you like it?” she inquires, glowing with pleasure. She turns once more to face the mirror, doubtless imagining her hair, as the assistant asks her if she would like a veil, and watching her laugh, pins one atop her cascading curls.

The dress is exquisite. It molds itself to her body, a beautiful white that sparkles due to the crystal that adorns it. She prefers a trumpet skirt, and it flares out, the train long and beautiful. At the moment, her bare shoulders impress me, and the dress dips low down her back. All this will have to be fixed before the wedding, but the woman has already assured us that all alterations can be made here; there should be no problems of any sort. Lisa desires to have sleeves that taper to her wrists, and wants the neckline to be raised a little higher. She sighs over the thought that she cannot have a sweetheart neckline, as it will still be too low, but glows again as she thinks of her husband-to-be.

At the moment she dances upon the little podium, too excited to actually stand still. Her joy is infectious; the woman who is helping her cannot help but smile. “I wish all brides had your energy!” she says sweetly, and Lisa laughs. How happy she is! I look upon her and struggle to contain my feelings. On the one hand, I am deeply happy for her. She is my sister, and I remember her in all her various phases. I remember when she used to throw her toys out of the toybox, piling them up so that she could make the empty space into a spaceship, gleefully informing me that she was leaving for Mars. I recall the way in which she would take my clothes and shoes and wear them, deciding to play dress-up and perform plays for me. I recall her mischievous glances, indulgent smiles and at certain twists of time, wanton cruelties. She had a peculiar way of punishing me when she was little. A gifted artist, she threatened to tear up her own paintings if I did not do what she wanted. It gave me more pain to see them torn than it caused her, who relied upon her skill and ability. She knew that she could always recreate them. I did not harbor the same belief.

She stands here now, glowing with joy, and our mother cannot speak because she is too emotional. What must that be like, to see one’s daughter as a bride, to have brought her to the next stage in her life? My mother is crying; the tears roll down her cheeks. I kiss her upon one of them, wondering whether I can find some tissues so she can dab away her tears. I know they are joyous tears, that she is glad for Lisa, but at the same time I feel a little pang. I will not show it, I viciously think to myself. I am nothing but happy for my sister. It is impossible for me to feel otherwise. How can I? I am not so cruel a person as to behave in such a fashion. I am a good person. I must be.

Lisa looks tentatively toward me. “Cassandra,” she says happily, merrily, as though she were beckoning me with her voice. “Cassie,” she says again, and her voice is more intimate, pitched at a lower level. “Do you like it? Do you think Daniel will like it?”

I steel my face into a well-studied expression. “Of course!” I say, hoping that my joy is real and not simply that which I have forced upon myself in order to please her. “You will make an incredibly beautiful bride. Daniel loves you already and could only love you more.”

She brushes her hands across her hair nervously; her bracelet catches upon one golden curl for a moment. I am overcome by an ache of longing; I see her in the mirror, this golden goddess in an exquisite white dress, and the vision frightens me. She is my sister, and yet she is this unearthly being, somehow apart from me, entering a new venue, a new plane of existence. She is my sister but I feel so differently about her- as though she were apart from me, as though she has left me. She has moved away from me in some undefinable fashion, and I struggle to catch up to her but I cannot. And though I feel joy, my heart is heavy. And it is not simply that I am sad that she is leaving me, that my family will in this way be broken apart even as it grows more inclusive. It is- and this I can admit to myself- that I am jealous of her. You see, Lisa is twenty-one, while I am twenty-six. And she is to be married, while I am not. And how I long to be her, when I look at her! I am happy for her, so deeply happy, but at the same time, I wonder what this will be like for me. What joy lies in store for me? Where shall I find someone to love me like Daniel loves her? And how shall this happen for me?

My sister has stepped off the podium; she walks back into the curtained dressing room, the assistant following close behind. I admire these red curtains, the fact that they are made of velvet. They are very beautiful. The entire setup of the bridal store is quite beautiful; they desire to make the women who come to them feel beautiful, which can only make sense. And while I am glad for Lisa and desire nothing more than her happiness, at the same time I am sad for myself. I know that is a natural feeling but I revile it, despise it- I do not want to be natural or human; I want to be something more. I do not want to be jealous; I want to feel happy and fulfilled just as I am.

My mother sends a nervous glance toward me; it occurs to me that she must be feeling quite frazzled, and she doesn’t have to worry about my happiness. I paste a false smile onto my face and step forward. “Isn’t she beautiful,” I say, and am surprised to find that I mean it quite sincerely. “Lisa will make a wonderful bride. You must be so glad for her; oh, how you love her!” I turn to her and embrace her, there, in the store, my arms around her, holding her up, supporting her. My mother is very strong, but there are some things that can undo her, and this is one of them.

Lisa emerges from the dressing room, now wearing her normal clothes. They are quite lovely; today she has donned a sparkling beaded Cache jean jacket and a short skirt. She has picked up her purse, which is beautifully gold and bears the GUESS logo across it, and chipper as ever, walks toward us. “Come, Mommy,” she says laughingly. “Let’s go out for lunch- I was thinking that little bagel place, you know, on Main? They have the most delicious blueberry bagels,” and linking her hand in hers, the two of them walk out together. I follow behind at a short distance, thinking my own thoughts, careful to give them enough space to talk without giving the impression that I do not have the desire to listen.

We get into the car, a silver Porsche, while my mother and Lisa continue to chat, amiably making conversation about the weather, Lisa’s colors, her future bridesmaids and the styling on the birkonimshe plans to distribute. I listen half-attentively as they then discuss whether Cornish Hens or chicken cutlets are better as a main dish, and hear them hotly debating the food to be served at the smorgasbord. This all seems a little like a dream to me, something that cannot possibly happen.

Driving down Main, we notice the bagel-place that Lisa had mentioned, and sliding smoothly into the lot, she parks the car and motions us to exit it. We do so, and I impulsively lean forward to squeeze her hand; she throws me a glowing look. We enter the restaurant only to see Mrs. Eichel, Lisa’s former eighth-grade Chumash teacher. “Lisa!” the woman exclaims, a half-finished order forgotten as she speaks. “Mazal Tov! I’m so glad to hear the news! And what is his name?” Lisa blushes a little as she answers, replying that her intended’s name is Daniel, and that he is from Teaneck. “Wonderful!” the teacher continues, happily catching up as the man behind the counter looks more and more irritated, glowering at her as he waits for her to finish her order. “Oh, excuse me a minute,” she finally breaks off, and turns to him, “a grilled whitefish sandwich please.” He nods his head, rings her up, she pays and then turns back to my sister. “And Mrs. Silver, how are you?” she inquires, as my mother politely answers that she is well. “Oh, and this is your sister?” she exclaims again, and I notice that her face darkens a little, as though she feels that she has insulted me. “What is your name? Cassie? Well, hello Cassie!” We watch as breathless, she gathers up her order and bids us farewell. “Well, I must fly- it was lovely to see you all again! Mazal Tov, Lisa, and may you have every happiness!”

We sit down to eat, and I cannot help but glance around the place irritatedly. Why must everyone insist upon feeling sorry for me? It is unkind that they are so low as to assume that I am unhappy for my sister, that my jealousy overrides my regard for her. It is unfair of them to believe this of me, even if they mean well, as I know they do. I wish they wouldn’t make these well meaning comments. I have heard what some of them have said to my mother when they thought they were whispering quietly, having pulled her aside and even having said so on the telephone. “And your Cassie? You’ll see, a shidduch will be made for her in no time at all.” But the way they say it, and the false cheer that fills their voices, leaves her feeling more pained than relieved. I wish they would not bother her. For that matter, I wish they would not bother me. I wish they would leave me alone, and let me be.

Who was it that declared that a woman’s personal happiness must rely wholly upon her husband? Who was it that decided that woman can have no joy without a man? It is not even the Torah that suggests this, as it is clear that God noticed that it was not good for man to be alone. And so woman was created. But God never said that it was not good for woman to be alone! Indeed, it is man who must treasure woman, for she is his happiness, created for him. But what is he to her? Why, he might be everything; he might be important or he might be nothing, but the constant insinuation that I have failed, that I am to be pitied, that I am too old and now at a loss as to what to do, that perhaps I have been to picky…I cannot deal with all these statements. I laugh scornfully, but they hurt me. Only I cannot allow anyone to know they hurt me; I cannot allow anyone to feel for me. As far as they are concerned, I am perfectly happy, lighthearted and sweet.

I dread these public places. I feel like I am a blot upon my otherwise happy family, that the fact that I exist unmarried is a stain upon the family honor. I hate these restaurants, these gatherings, even attending the weddings or celebrations of others. It seems to be my misfortune always to encounter kindhearted people who do not have the right words, and who attempt to comfort me with statements that are truly cruel, as they only point out what I do not have and what I am theoretically missing, as opposed to what is good in my life, and what I have for which to be thankful. So many women exclaim “Im yirtzeh Hashem by you!” and I simply cannot take their words kindly anymore. They hurt, you see. And then there are all these suggestions of segulos I ought to perform, drinking the wine at the wedding, going to Amuka, praying by the Western Wall…I accept all these suggestions politely, for I know they are meant out of kindness. But they hurt me. I wish people would simply not feel that it was their place to pry into my life.

I stab my pancakes with a fork, cutting into them with long strokes of my knife, then dipping the pieces into the small container of syrup that stands on the table. I admire the décor in this restaurant; it is cheerful and bright, reminding me more of a pottery place or painting shop than a place to eat. The walls are yellow and dotted with flowers; one wall is entirely created out of handprints where children have dipped their hands in paint and then adorned the wall with their artwork. The name and age of each child is written below; it’s an unconventional and clever mode of decoration. It makes me happy.

“Do either of you want chocolate milk?” I suddenly say, looking at both Lisa and mom. “No,” they answer, though Lisa extends her hands for a moment as though to touch mine, to give me something of her happiness. “But hurry back, Cassie; I want to talk to you!” she says, and I smile a little sadly; I am only going to walk to the fridge and back. I walk to the sliding doors, remove the chocolate milk, but before I can return to the cashier to pay, I catch sight of my reflection in the fridge.

I analyze my features from the critical perspective of an outsider. I have black curls that reach a little past my shoulders, a pleasant face with freckles dashed across my nose and upper cheeks, a pleasant smile and beautiful eyes- my best feature. My eyes are green and deep and wonderful; I love my eyes. They make me happy. The rest of me is well enough; I am petite, not too tall, but I am certainly not unattractive or ugly. Lisa is quite different from me, I muse, with her golden grace and exquisitely endearing, almost childlike behavior. I have a kind of catlike elegance, should I ever choose to use it, but I prefer to remain quiet.

I pay for my chocolate milk and return to our table only to sip at it. “So Daniel wants his friend Josh to be one of the two eidim,” Lisa pleasantly explains, “and I’m completely for it. Oh!” her features fall in dismay. “I heard that Laurie can’t make the wedding. I’m deeply sad about it; you know how much I love her…I swear, I was considering making it on a different day if only for her sake! But we know I can’t do that, considering how much effort we’ve put into it,” she concluded, smiling once again. “Oh Mommy, I don’t know what I would do without you! You’ve been amazing!”

I have found that such exchanges occur more frequently of late; Lisa can do nothing but discuss wedding plans and how much she loves Daniel, and I, though content to listen for much of the time, find that I must remove myself in order to do something else lest I go mad. Happily, this discussion was coming to an end as we were soon to return home, and doing so, I might escape to the confines of my room. My room is my sanctuary; it is where I engage in the creative process. I have an interesting sort of fancy in that I take myself to be a creator, and lose myself within poetry and my writings. Many times they are the only outlet I have, as I am not the sort to share my feelings freely; I prefer them to be private, kept specifically for myself. No one knows the sort of nights I pass, lying awake and thinking over thoughts that will not keep themselves from me; I can do nothing about them, until finally I fall into a troubled sleep. You see, though I do not admit it, I am afraid. I do want to be married, and I do want to be loved, and I am afraid that it may never happen. And it is hard to live as I do, where you see others move on and do not wish to infringe upon their happiness. So you remove yourself, you take yourself away. And you lie to yourself to say that it does not hurt. But it does, oh, it does!


I have learned that I cannot spend Shabbat by myself. It is all well and good when I come home to spend time with my family, but I live in an apartment by myself near the Lake, and it is utterly depressing if I do not have guests over or engage in some sort of activity. The view of the Lake is beautiful, of course; there is nothing that could possibly be better. I love to walk out toward it sometimes, and stare into its murky green depths, imagining for the moment the possibilities. I have some romantic sensibilities, and there are many times where it seems simpler to slip into the cool water, which would allow me to get away from everything. But I am not serious when I entertain such notions. I am only wishing that things could be simple, and life could be easier than it seems.

I am always so hopeful when they suggest someone for me. I hope that it is the right person, that he is “the one.” I take care with my appearance, dress my hair and strive to appear just so, that I may be beautiful and interest him. And yet, for whatever reason, these dates do not work out. I have learned not to trust the taste of others, that is, when I am not in my low moods where I lay all the blame upon myself. There is a kind of vicious pleasure in doing that, I have found, a kind of beauty in pronouncing oneself a failure. It allows you to take all the badness that is within you and hurt yourself for it, and as humans, we have a kind of masochistic streak that loves that, that tries to indulge that at all times. I have had my low moments, where I have wept and simply seen myself as unfit or unsuitable. There is no man in the world to match me; I am so strange and impossible a person! And then I flare up at myself for even allowing it to bother me this much- am I not a woman? Can I not survive on my own? Why this constant search for another to complete me? Can it be that I truly do not see myself as whole unless I have the aid and support of another? How cowardly am I, how shallow! I despise myself at these times. But what is there to do? It is the reality, and it is all I can bear.

I walk toward the two large windows at the front of my apartment; they are the ones that afford me the view of the lake. I wear my silk wrap over my cotton pajamas, and in my own way I feel very elegant. I look toward the lake, to the foaming waves, the wind that rushes across the water. It is black in the darkness, lit slightly by the moon, which allows its purity to tinge it. I like to watch the water, to look at the lake. I very rarely tire of it. When I do, I turn on the antique lamp by my chair, which is placed just in front of the window, and read for a time. At the moment I am in the middle of Madame Bovary. I have a strange tendency to read books which are apropos at the time, and it seems that I am now to read of unhappy women.

There is something very educational about being on one’s own, learning what one can and cannot manage, what one does and does not enjoy. I like my job, and enjoy the position I hold at the office. I like my employers and the people at my work, all of whom are very kind, some of whom stop by simply to see how I am, to offer to get me coffee or otherwise inquire as to whether I would like something to eat or drink. I also like working in an environment that does not constantly remind me of how I have failed, for there are very few Jews there, and in gentile circles, it does not matter that I am twenty-six and unmarried. They do not tease you there; they do not notice. Indeed, they only notice that I am attractive, and give me appreciative glances even as they speak quite civilly. There is a kind of serenity that I find in my job, a sort of contentment which pleases me.

It is the nights that are particularly bad, and the weekends. This is why I have decided that I cannot have Shabbat dinners alone anymore; I do my best to invite others or to be invited out, for I must have company; I suffer otherwise. It is not that I cannot bear to be alone; I can, indeed I enjoy being alone for much of the time. It is that sometimes the loneliness overpowers me, and I must lose myself for a while; I want to escape for a time. That is all that I require; that is all that I must do.

Tomorrow I must wake up early for a final fitting; the bridesmaids gowns are to be an exquisite blue, and I shall look particularly wonderful in mine, which picks up from the green in my eyes. I look forward to the fitting, but know I must sleep a little. I remove my wrap and drape it on a dining room chair, moving forward so that I reach my bedroom, then cover myself with the assembled comforters, wiling myself to fall asleep. I have difficulty with this, but it is all I can do.


I watch as the woman applies makeup to her face, skillfully dabbing, patting and preparing her skin for the dramatic, wondrous makeup that will transform her from my sister into a fairy queen. She is nervous; there is no doubt about it. I look at her and feel for her, a gentle smile dancing across my face. She is fasting, but there is a purity that shines in her even as I feel a pang. She is my sister, my sister and she is going to leave me, to move on to a wholly different stage in her life. And how I shall miss her! And how I shall desire her near me, and how I wonder at who it is that she will become today, having married Daniel, and how far that will take her from me, separating her from me more strongly than ever before.

I see her now and feel the intense excitement and apprehension that fills the room- she wears beautiful lacy white undergarments and sits here in nothing more than a slip as the woman works magic with her brushes, sweeping her cheekbones with a faint touch of blush so that they seem to emerge, causing her to seem at once exotic and forbidden to all, slightly aloof in an exotic, captivating way. She closes her eyes as the cosmetician bids her; the cosmetician frowns a little as she consults her palette, then determines to mix several shades together, picking up from my sister’s chocolate brown eyes. She weaves together warm golds and colder greens, and I smile as I watch.

A lady works on my hair, styling it and gathering the curls into a beautiful updo. I am thinking about my dress and how excited I am wear to it. Others in the room bustle to and fro; there are nervous, heated conversations, exclamations over how pretty we all look and final the tension that arises due to the bride not being fully dressed. But she is helped into her gown, then zipped up and buttoned, and she stands before us in all her glory. My mother only reaches forward to place a bouquet of white roses in her hand.

She shines like an angel. My sister is exquisite, so close and at once, so far from me. I blink back tears, glad that the cosmetician chose to use waterproof mascara on me. She sees our gathered awe and reaches out her hands as though to bless us all. “Don’t cry, Mommy,” she says, though her own voice is choked with emotion, “for I am so happy.”

We lead her into the room and I help with her train, as we take the elevator downstairs, into the room adjoining the ballroom. There she waits, seated upon a chair decorated for this express purpose, adorned with white tulle and interweaving lovely designs. Women begin to file into the room, friends come to her and press her hand, exclaim over her lovely gown or face, and even kneel before her as they request her to bless them, for it is believed that the bride has a special power to intercede for others upon the day of her wedding. I watch all this with a kind of awe. We continue like this for a time, and then we hear the singing and dancing that precedes the arrival of the groom.

He enters the room and he is beaming; his face emits light in a way that is different from the norm. He approaches her and very slowly lifts her veil and places it over her face. The gesture at once seems incredibly intimate and deeply respectful. It is really happening, I think. I cannot believe it. His friends lift him up and take him along with him as they dance him all the way outside of the room, but I am still looking at Lisa, my Lisa, her veil now covering her face, and I realize that for a moment I feel pain rather than joy. It is because I long for this so much, and I do not have it.

The ceremony continues. We are seated; pictures are taken, the music plays. I am half-present and half-lost in thought, musing so as not to take all of this too seriously, to feel it too intensely. She walk around him seven times, each time, to my mind, binding herself more completely to him. She stands beside him; a cup is lifted to their lips. I consider this, consider the many women who have stood beside their beloved and drunk the wine beneath the canopy, the symbolism inherent in this gesture, the terrifying choice which has been solidified. He has given her the ring, which flashes upon her finger. And then there is the moment before sound explodes into the room with the ringing cries of “Mazel Tov” and singing- there is the moment where he steps on the glass.

To me it appears as though in slow motion. He raises his foot, stomps upon the glass, and I see shards of it breaking apart, shattered upon the cloth. It is this action more than any that makes it true for me, that makes me realize what is happening. And at that moment, I am so happy I can barely breathe, and at the same time I die a little death. Because I am jealous, I am jealous! I am not jealous of my sister’s happiness; I could not be happier for her. But I am jealous because I want something like this to happen for me, I want someone to step upon the glass as firmly and as strongly, to love me to that extent, and I want to believe that it will happen. But at this moment, it is difficult to believe.

I spend the wedding in a state of extended, transported joy. I smile at everyone, I dance, and I am not behaving falsely; there is truth in all my actions. It is only afterwards, very late at night, when we return home, that I sit myself upon my bed, having wiped off my makeup and donned my pajamas, and allow the tears to roll down my cheeks. I cry, but softly, hiding my sobs so that my parents do not hear them, unwilling to share my pain with anyone else. I am happy for my sister; I am happy! I think fiercely, as though that could undo the feeling. I do not want to be this person, this jealous, unhappy person who cries at the dark, who wants to tear away another’s joy. But that is not precisely what I am, either; I feel a queer mixture of joy and despair, of pleasure in her lot and pain for myself, a kind of inconsolable sadness. It is so hard to see the pitying looks that so many give me, and so hard to feel so incomplete! There is so much I want and yet it is not granted to me. I sob in earnest now, but stifle my cries with my hand. I am shaking as I cry; my whole body trembles with desire for a fulfillment that I cannot reach and do not have.

How I long for this! How I long for the day that I can be as she was today, and I too will be inexpressibly happy, and feel completely fulfilled, as though my purpose too were understood and comprehensible, and my dreams not impossible.

But for the moment I see no way and I am overwhelmed by pain, not due to her joy, but due to my loss, to what I do not have, to what I am lacking…and what I am afraid, sometimes, will never be.


Credits: "Summer Overture" from Requiem for a Dream and a girl with a beautiful voice who also happens to love to drive.


Elster said...

As a general rule, I think you write extremely well and this is no exception. You do a fine job of hitting on human emotion. One criticism though. Your early works were all in the realm of more fantasy-type writing where is was more acceptable for people to say things like "I shall..." or "oh how you love her". But in reality, do you really talk to your friends/parents like that? Otherwise, fine writing as usual.

Aaron said...

Chana,I love your writing!
Your skills(as a writer)blossomed lately...,such depth of feeling . . There is an element of truth to this one,something that I can relate to even though I'm a male.I love the way you describe Cassie's state,her hope,desire to find that special partner and the loneliness that can be so overwhelming. You pretty much expressed here the way I feel.
Well done!
Thank you and looking forward to more.

Scraps said...

The worst is the people who insist on pitying you even when you don't [yet?] pity yourself. The things they say that are meant well, but are oh-so-tactless you wonder what they were thinking...or if they were thinking. Why should it be so absurd for one sister to be happy for the other, even if the engaged one is younger? And why does everyone relegate the older sister to old-maidhood by virtue of not getting married first? It's so beyond ridiculous--people are truly so tactless even as they're trying to be kind. But of course, you have to smile and be polite and go elsewhere if you have to roll your eyes, because they do mean well.

It is not the easiest thing to have a younger sibling get married before you...but it's made so much worse than it has to be, by all of the well-meaning people who insist on making it so.

Ezzie said...


YU student said...

Loved it!
I'm the unmarried older brother and my younger brother is married.
This was so cathartic for me!

I hope I too will be able to find my special lady one day.

Chana,thank you for the incredibly thuthful and captivating story!

Chana (not THE) said...

That was quite a moving story. And I also thought it was quite funny, because recently, I had an assignment from school to write a poem in which the narrator was "looking in" on a scene. And I chose to write it about a younger sister at her older sister's wedding, and how she could never find the chance to say goodbye to her sister, how she felt lke she was losing her. Anyways, this story was really reminiscent of my poem, and i had to comment...

YU student said...

You did it again!
A great story!

Tzvi Feifel said...

You will go far in life, no doubt.

Thank you.

Yitzik from YU said...

Chana,this is lovely!
Have a Happy Purim!

another YU student said...

Personal fulfillment( rather lack of it) is at the heart of the story. You described this well.
ost of the students @ YU/Stern are struggling with this.

Good job as usual and thank you.