Brian MacDonald
and Cristal Guderjahn

first cut

Brian MacDonald
First Cut

Cristal Guderjahn

Inspiration piece

They were barking in the kitchen again, and their voices snapped against my walls and woke me when I would have rather slept. After four mornings of this, I could now recognize a few words. A loud “ken,” the Hebrew word for “yes,” and a rapid “Ima,” the term for “Mother.” Their words were sharp and overlapped, as if arguing. Every conversation they’d had since this woman arrived sounded like an argument, as if what they had to say—about broccoli, for example—was worthy of debate. I had begun to notice my absence from these conversations. Miriam refused to speak English, and I had a sense that she didn’t approve of our marriage. I pulled a robe around me and walked into the kitchen, and I spied the already familiar green package of menthol cigarettes on our table, with two cups of Nescafe, a full ashtray, a plate of burned toast. I took the Nescafe from the cupboard and dumped a teaspoonful into a mug. My entrance had stopped their conversation, and I could feel them watching me as I shoved bread into the toaster.

“Boker-tov,” I said, trying to sound as if I had forgotten about the night before.

“Boker-tov, Kristen.” Her greeting was a two-note song as she lit a cigarette. An attempt to sound pleasant, no doubt, but likely not an attempt for my benefit.

I glared at Barak. Why hadn’t he set her straight on my name? Since Monday, she’d been calling me Kristen, rolling the “r,” occasionally spitting the “st.” Krisstennnn. I had corrected her only once and refused to repeat myself or to let her think it bothered me. But I now hated her voice in my house, her enormous underwear hanging to dry in my bathroom, her hair color that matched the thousands of freckles on her face and fingers. And the smell of her hair spray. Twelve more days and she’d be gone.

Barak smiled at me, pointing at their coffee cups, a silent request that I make enough for three. I filled the teapot with water and grabbed the box of sugar cubes from the shelf. They resumed their conversation, and from her gestures this morning, I could tell they were discussing me. She waved her
cigarette in my direction, and I tried to pick out words I knew. The word “pull-kess,” for chicken leg. And “oof,” for chicken. Definitely discussion of last night’s dinner.

This family loved burned food. Every piece of meat had to be broiled and blackened. Even the strange homogenous stew with beef and potatoes had to be thoroughly cooked, until the sides of the pot burned the food into black flakes that swam among the meat and vegetables. To my husband, burned food was “nice” food. And to my new mother-in-law, who had stepped off the plane four days earlier with plans to take over my house, my cooking was “the worst” she had ever tasted. My cooking was far from delicious, and until her arrival, I had relied on frozen foods and canned soups for our evening meals. Barak didn’t seem to mind, as long as I overcooked everything. I hated to cook. Touching raw meat had always made my hands smell like wet dog. Garlic made me sick to my stomach. And I never knew what to make, or what seasonings to add, usually relying on salt, pepper, and dried basil for my most elegant meals. The occasional dash of paprika also seemed to embellish things.

The night before, I had broiled a large pan of chicken mini-drumsticks, Barak’s favorite. I chopped some raw potatoes, poured several tablespoons of oil over everything, added salt, pepper, and dried basil, and stuck the entire heap into the oven for an hour. He had given this recipe to me. It was the only dinner I could make from scratch. When I pulled the pan from the oven and a stream of smoke poured into the kitchen, I could imagine her praise; everything was dry and brown, and it smelled like chicken. Success. I chopped up a head of iceberg lettuce and dribbled Thousand Island dressing on it—in a charming cross-hatch pattern—applying dried crumbled basil for color. White bread. A tub of margarine. Candles on the table. I had even laid out my grandmother’s flatware, a now-miss-matched set of yellowing utensils that I had hoped would provoke conversation of finer home furnishings.

“Mah-zeh?” Her loud question startled me as she sat down.

“It’s chicken,” Barak said. “My favorite.” His arm appeared briefly around my shoulders, then disappeared. I stared at the freckles on her lips.

“This is not a meal. How can this be a meal?”

Each word had its own moment, each sentence its own gesture. “This is an appetizer.”

Before she arrived, I had wanted her to adore me, to consider me the perfect daughter-in-law, despite my Gentile background, my youth, lack of experience, inability to cook or keep a Kosher kitchen. She had already told me my face was “too pale and simple.” (“Krisstennn,” she had said, “ you should never go without makeup.”) I could tell by her frequent surveys that my mop-like yellow hair and propensity to wear black repulsed her. I was obviously in no position to defend myself. I’d have to rely on Barak, who had apparently resolved to suck on chicken bones, encourage her to start eating by enjoying his own meal.

“Ani roat-sah Nescafe,” she said. I knew she meant to make coffee; I stood up quickly. “I’ll get it,” I said, and headed for the kitchen, my cheeks burning. I listened to them argue and turned up the flame under the kettle. As I stood at the stove and stared at the wall, I thought of what else she might eat from my repertoire. Grilled cheese sandwich? Hard-boiled eggs? Or perhaps the
sweet potato rotting in the bottom of the refrigerator.

“Starve,” I whispered. “Just fucking starve, you hag.”

The kettle began to whistle, and I welcomed its ability to block out their voices. Barak walked in and pulled the kettle off the stove. I heard a door slam.

“She has gone to bed,” he said, and closed his arms around my waist.

“Your mother hates me,” I told his shoulder.

“Yes, she hates. But it’s not you she hates.”

How philosophical that sounded. Almost poetic. At least the drama was there. I wasn’t in the mood. We returned to the dinner table, and Barak and I ate without talking. Even in bed, we had no words. I stared into the darkness for several hours and listened to my husband quietly snore next to me, fantasized about his mother eating poisoned food, about me telling detectives that she had found something appetizing in the refrigerator and ate without us, that it was appropriate that she should die of poisoning because of all the venom she had brought into our home. The thoughts were enough to lure me into sleep, into several hours without criticism or self-doubt, recipes or garnishes.

We had married two months after my twenty-first birthday, in March, at an attorney’s house in the Hollywood Hills. I agreed to marry him to escape my overly attentive parents. I wanted my freedom, and they wanted to continue parenting me. I honestly just wanted to live on my own, but I had no means to do so.

Barak married me so he could stay in the country. We barely knew each other. Two weeks after meeting in a class at the junior college, I had moved into a spare bedroom in his apartment. Two weeks after that, we were married. He agreed to support me, and I agreed to stay married until he received his green card. We shared our first kiss on our wedding day. It was a horrible, salivating kiss. He’d obviously never learned how to kiss lovingly.

Within a month, Barak and I were sleeping in the same bed. We were so content, with thirty days of marital mastery under our belts, that we decided to hold what Barak referred to as a “proper American wedding” in the summer. Just a few friends, with a small ceremony at my parents’ home in the suburbs, and a reception in the backyard. Polaroids of our families together. A balding French accordion player. My mother invited a handful of her coworkers, and my father nodded as she read the final guest list. My mother was overjoyed, and she shopped with me for my dress, a lacy, knee-length frock that to me seemed too lacy and too short. As we stood at the mirror admiring it, she smiled with wet eyes and told me she thought I was “lovely.” Perhaps we could get my hair done, because it was my wedding day, and what better reason to get “pretty?” And I could put on some lipstick for a change. I’d wear her pearls, the ones that my father gave her on their tenth anniversary, as if wearing pearls would transport me into womanhood.

Barak and I agreed not to tell anyone about our earlier wedding, although we had to tell the minister, a woman from the Eternal Light and Tranquillity Church, and she promised to bring a realistic-looking marriage license that we could sign in front of the family. She also promised secrecy, which alone was worth her $45 fee. I couldn’t bear the thought of explaining myself, or my choices, to my parents. I barely understood them myself.

Our wedding plans included flying Barak’s mother out to California from Israel, and I was excited to meet her. But at the airport, I knew she wouldn’t be easily charmed. Something about her eyes alerted me, perhaps dark brown beads that immediately stabbed me with disapproval.

“You are not Jewish.” Her first words, apparently.

“Ima, she’ll be Jewish soon, don’t worry,” Barak said. This topic consumed our walk to baggage claim, with the two of them discussing it in fast Hebrew words I couldn’t understand. I’m sure he was telling her about my Judaism classes and my intention to convert, because she eventually aimed her gestures at me, again with her eyes locked onto mine, her question clear and sarcastic. “So you think you have what it takes to be a Jew?” She was smiling, which exposed the spaces between gray rectangular teeth.

I nodded and returned the smile, although a warmer smile, then looked at Barak and cocked my head, in an attempt at garnering some endearment. “I think so.”

I was trying too hard. Even I could see that.

“You think so?” Her entire body moved when she spoke.

“I hope so.” I did hope so, although it didn’t seem like such a difficult endeavor: six weeks of class, an oral exam, a ritual bath in front of rabbis.

“You are not truly married until you are a Jew.”

I looked at Barak and coaxed him to help me. He seemed amused.

“Ima, it’s OK. A rabbi’s going to marry us again when she converts.” She shook her head. She squinted until I could see only two dark slivers.

“You have no idea what it is like to be a Jewish wife. No idea.” Our first meeting.

Four days later in our kitchen, the toast popped up, light brown. I ate it dry, by the sink and let the crumbs fall into the drain. I wiped the counter and took my coffee into the living room and sat by the window, letting my eyes drift over Hollywood below me. Barak and his mother continued talking until noon, until the apartment smelled like a bar, until I had taken a shower and called my mother to see if she needed any help with the reception. My mother’s voice soothed me. “…a three-tiered cake, you’ll love it; it’s got cream cheese frosting, and I found out that Albertson’s makes lunchmeat platters, they’re really elaborate, with all kinds of turkey and olive loaf, even a little dish of mustard and mayonnaise right in the middle, so I bought three of those, and Grandma says she’ll make a nice plate of veggies, with some of that onion dip that Daddy’s so crazy about.”

I listened quietly and followed the creases of my pleated skirt with my fingers and hugged the receiver with my shoulder and chin, reminding myself that prenuptial doubts were obsolete.

What are we celebrating? I thought.

My mother-in-law chugged into the living room and settled into the overstuffed chair near me. She worked at her purse, removed items from it, counted cash, smeared coppery lipstick onto her wide lips. My mother continued at my ear with her perpetual list of details about clear plastic forks and floral paper plates.

“…and I found a small spray of lavender and white silk flowers that are just perfect for the top of the cake, and I think you’re gonna love the frosting…”

Barak walked into the living room and rubbed his hands together. “OK, everybody, let’s go spend some money,” he said, his volume above my mother’s. His mother squinted up at him and lifted her cigarette toward the ceiling.

“Barak, ani rey-vah.” Another command. She was hungry, likely because she hadn’t eaten dinner the night before, and also likely because she had smoked her breakfast.

“Yes, Ima needs to eat, Krissss-ten.” Barak almost choked on his laughter and had obviously found humor in his mother’s version of my name. I didn’t smile. I simply told my mother we’d see them later that evening for at the restaurant and quietly hung up the phone.

“I could make something before we leave,” I said. Of course the suggestion was futile. Her laughter was immediate. Barak’s followed.

An hour later at the mall, we settled on the 40-piece set of silver, with its whopping price tag and behemoth serving spoons we would never use. I could tell Barak’s mother was satisfied. She raised her hands on the way home in the car and said, “There!” Apparently a triumphant moment.

“It’s perfect, Ima,” Barak said. I could smell her hair again, an overwhelming scent of drugstore hairspray that swelled my throat. I rolled down my window and caught my husband’s grinning eyes in the rear view mirror. I hated the pattern, too asymmetrical, too modern, but I didn’t argue. She was so exhilarated to buy us something we could use, and she seemed pleased that we were replacing the yellowing flatware. I was grateful for the mood swing.

“Yes, thank you Miriam,” I said, leaning forward, fighting an unexpected urge to call her “Marian.”

At home, my closet was a dark cavern, a long tunnel of black clothing. On the shelf above my shoe rack sat a neatly folded, tissue-wrapped pink and white sweater, which my mother had given me the year before. I’d wear the sweater to the restaurant with my black silk pants. I was in the mood to make my mother happy on the eve of my wedding.

“Ah, Kristen,” Miriam said as I walked, pink-clad from the bedroom. I couldn’t help but stare. She stood nearly naked at the ironing board, filling the iron with water, her freckled flesh pouring out from a large white bra and beige half slip. “I am trying to learn how to heat up this i-run.”

I smiled softly at the chance to befriend her. She was obviously still animated from our afternoon shopping spree.

“I never use water,” I said. “I just plug it in and set it on high.”

“Ah, yes, of course, a simple method for a simple girl,” she said. I pulled a chair from the dining room table and sat down.

“This color you’re wearing is good for you,” she said. I thanked her. “It is so sad, a girl with such white skin wears so much black,” she said, and licked her forefinger to touch the iron quickly. “You disappear in black. How can people notice you when you disappear?”

“Well, I’m wearing white tomorrow,” I said. I hoped this would change our subject. “It’s all white. All lace.” I stood up and outlined the dress design with my hands, chopped at my knee to show the length. I watched her face drop, obviously not taking the pleasantry bait.

“I have watched you with my son,” she said.

“I love your son very much,” I said. I paid little attention to the turn in tone of this conversation, instead felt thrilled to have English in my home.

“I mean I have watched you with him,” her comment a bit louder than the last. “You two are not in love. You don’t know how to love my son.” Hands flew around her like hungry bats.

“Of course we’re in love; we’re getting married tomorrow.” I felt my fingers going numb. “Maybe you should think about what you know before you go assuming things.” Finally, it seemed, my courage had emerged, but I still felt numb in my throat as I said it.

“I know,” she said, pulling a finger to her temple and slowing her tempo, “Much. More. Than. You. Think.”

I stood—not wanting to leave, wanting to jab her in the ribs—and headed toward the bedroom to find Barak. The bathroom door was closed with a strip of light under it. I could hear the shower running, so I returned to the kitchen to start the kettle.

“Barak has told me about your ugly wedding, your wedding without love,” she said, still standing at the ironing board, testing the iron with her forefinger. “This is not a real marriage.”

“Right. Well, back then, I was helping your son,” I said, now leaning my shoulder on the door frame. “And now I’m loving your son.”

She shook her head and held up a sleeve to line up its seams. “You are a terrible wife.”

Again, I twisted my face. “What, because you can’t eat my chicken? Because I’m not Jewish?” I surprised myself with the volume. “You don’t even know why I’m a bad wife. I happen to know I’m a lousy wife, but you can’t know that. You haven’t been here. You haven’t seen us together.”

“You are a very rude little girl,” she said, smiling, again testing the iron.

I started to feel a rage. It began under my ribs and moved throughout my body, caused me to shake and my mouth to dry. I stood there watching her use my iron, my ironing board, my living room. For four days, I’d let this woman chain-smoke in my house, call me names, criticize my appearance, my housekeeping, my personality. And for four days, I’d been sugar-lipped, a nodding child, agreeable even to the most acidic of insults. I suspect her comment inspired my response.

“Rude? You’re calling me rude. Rude. Rude. Rude.” I may have repeated the word more than that, I’m not sure, but other words weren’t coming to me. I paced around her and looked at the floor, and then caught her eyes before stopping.

Her eyebrows slammed to the middle of her forehead. Insults spat out of me, insults about her weight, her spotted skin, her odor, horrid comments about her stained undergarments in the bathroom, her bad taste in silverware, her foggy teeth. I continued for a good three minutes before shutting up. She stared at me until I collapsed into the dining room chair and held my head. I thought my eyes would explode. It was me who said all those things, and I was done.

“Ah, so this is the woman my son has married.” Slow and controlled. She had this ability; I had to give her that. The smile infuriated me. “You are nothing. Your parents have raised a little girl who cannot make a good home for her husband.”

“At least I have a husband,” a cruel comment, even for me. Her husband had left just two years earlier, a fact I knew but that now didn’t surprise me, a painful subject even Barak avoided. I must have known I would regret it, that it would cause nothing but fury, and that it would destroy the evening. But to think things out, to consider the consequences and try to understand her side of things, was impossible. And unimportant. Yelling at her was important. Fighting back. Insulting her. Crushing her. It wouldn’t matter later. I knew she would return to her place in our family. I knew my apology was inevitable, and that I’d cry, and beg her pardon. I even assumed I would hold her before the wedding and tell her I was sorry beyond sorry, and that I’d never say anything like that again.

Then, the iron.

It began as a tender flat surface against my back, and I imagined it was her hand comforting my rage. She must have felt responsible for pushing me this far. Such warmth. She would prove that she wasn’t an insensitive beast.

Then, the heat.

It progressed into hot pressure that pushed my body to the table, and a hand appearing at my hair, shoving my face and bending my nose into a place mat. Insane heat plunged into my back through my roasting surface. I reached behind me, groping at unfriendly air to find no help. I smelled smoke, a plastic stinging that filled my nose and eyes, and then could see the triangle in my mind. It was a red fiery triangle that raised the skin and formed blisters.

A scream. Was it mine?

The heat turned to ice on my back, and then into nothing, a stony coldness that lacked form and motive. Maybe that one second seemed longer than it truly was. But that one second was vivid, and it would be the only relief I’d have for the next month or so. Burns like this don’t heal quickly. They take their time peeling, blistering, oozing wet. They require time. Gauze strips and white tape, ice packs that prevent the pain from penetrating the nerves. Then, they peel again, to reveal an even more sensitive layer of freshly pink skin. But that skin never returns you back to the old you, that person who didn’t have that three-sided scar between her shoulder blades.

In a moment, I wanted sleep, long tunnels of black that would carry me from the apartment and the stink of stale plastic smoke. The pressure released. But it felt good to fall into the placemat. Offer all the weight of my head to the table. All that soft, pink yarn around my neck, and I would never wear it again.

Of course this wasn’t love. We hadn’t waited for it, hadn’t hoped for the ache, we had only created it. We’d conspired against childhood, built a marriage out of nothing, lived what would become pleasant memories, only walked down an isle that deemed us married.

But somehow, in that short thirty days, his voice had developed an ability to comfort me, even now. I could hear him above me. Her too. I could hear the two of them yelling, him saying kind things about me, standing up to her, for me. I knew he would. We could build a marriage out of this, I knew it. And now I understood it. The heat. The burning. The voices and the anger. I belonged to her now. Hers. Her new daughter. Obedient. A homemaker. A chef who knew how to garnish. And this is how it would be.

Loud, quick voices above me exchanged more Hebrew, meaningless sounds that beat in my ears. How I wished those two would stop arguing. It was so easy now. I would need to prepare that stew after the wedding and repair all this damage. In my mind, the grocery list formed. Potatoes. Beef. And carrots. What could they be yelling about? I vowed that the minute she left the country, the second she stepped onto the plane, things would change. And next time I’d be ready for her. Praise. Adoration. Gifts. All mine. I would enroll in a Hebrew class. And wear lipstick. And wear color. Finish my lessons on how to be a Jewish wife. I’d always wanted to learn to smoke. Learn to burn food. Learn to understand why things were better when burned.

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