Leo speed-walked through the house. Mariel pursued him, voice rising through distress to outrage. “What I don’t understand,” she said, “is why you couldn’t just stay in your seat.” He heard her synagogue heels ticking on the oak floor. “That would have been the bare minimum.”
He reached the living room doorway, which had no actual door. Not a strategic position. Over his shoulder, he called, “I don’t know.”
“You don’t know.”
Mariel hove into view. Her freshly hennaed hair streamed over her shoulders. Her expression was a perfect blend of anger and fear. Maybe, at this precise moment, a little heavy on the anger. Leo wished that would change.
He retreated to the couch. If he couldn’t be alone, at least he could lie down. His back hurt. Also his head. Also his soul, if he had one.
Mariel came closer. “Leo,” she said, swaying above him like a Christmas-tree angel. “Please tell me what happened.”
The meat behind Leo’s eyes throbbed. He couldn’t explain. He didn’t want to try. He looked beyond Mariel, at the calming green David Byrne En Vivo poster hanging over the fireplace. He loved that poster. He’d special-ordered it from Buenos Aires. Mariel wanted him to take it down.
“Mariel, I don’t know. I mean it. I couldn’t stay sitting. I had to get up, okay?”
“Correct. I had to get up, because—” There was no because. No available explanation. Leo felt around his brain for a stand-in, some description or metaphor that might help his wife understand, at least for a moment, what had struck him in Beth Sholom’s back pew.
“A bolt,” he said. “I was struck by a bolt. From God. And I had to—”
“I know what you had to do.” Mariel sank into a yogic crouch. Her golden eyes gleamed at Leo in a way he found alarming. He could see the swell of her freckled breast beneath her black wrap dress, which was coming loose.
She rested her elbows on her knees, froglike. “I know what you had to do,” she repeated. “You had to dance down the entire aisle of Beth Sholom, waving your arms like a madman, in front of every single one of your neighbors, not to mention the rest of the Jews in Frederick, and you had to do it right in the middle of poor Micah Parker’s bar mitzvah. Gabbling like a lunatic.”
Poor Micah Parker was right. Leo felt a wave of guilt toward the kid, who’d been cooped up studying for months. As far as Leo remembered, he’d been doing a great job before the tongue-speaking began. Chanting along like wildfire.
“That’s right.” Leo recognized that sarcasm was not currently called for, but he couldn’t stop himself. “Very accurate assessment of the situation. Thank you for summarizing.”
“Leo.” Mariel’s voice cracked.
“I’m sorry.” He sat up and reached for her hand. “I’m just tired.”
She squeezed his fingers. “I bet.” Fear was beating anger in her eyes now. “Leo, I think you had a seizure.”
“What else could it have been?”
Leo was confident. He couldn’t say how or why, but he knew. His bolt wasn’t a seizure. It was a bolt. He suspected Mariel wouldn’t accept that line of argument.
“It was a seizure,” she said again. “It must have been.”
Leo rubbed his eyes, which still hurt. He didn’t want to fight about his neurological health. He couldn’t win. In sixteen years of marriage, he’d never won a fight with Mariel. It was impossible. She was legally trained. She’d convinced him to redo the kitchen, to stop smoking pot, to accept having only one child. If she could win the second-baby wars, then she could convince him his bolt wasn’t God. She could convince him, right here on the too-soft living room couch, that he had a brain tumor, and Leo preferred not to be convinced.
A sharp thud came from overhead. Stevie, kicking things. Mariel glanced upward and then said, with renewed energy, “You frightened your son.”
“Mariel, he’s ten.”
“Ten-year-olds can’t be scared?”
Leo didn’t reply. He knew perfectly well that Stevie wasn’t scared. He wasn’t certain Stevie could feel emotions other than spite and glee. He used to be a sweet, inventive kid, devoted to loud imaginary wrestling matches and father-son mosh pits. But sometime last summer, a shift had occurred. Stevie had declared all grown-ups his enemies. He would no longer listen to old punk albums with Leo, or play two-man Capture the Flag. He spat in his milk at dinner. He wouldn’t accept bedtime stories or songs. Leo’s theory, which Mariel said was manipulative, was that because he had no siblings, Stevie had allied himself with his friends rather than his family. Mariel’s theory was that all ten-year-olds hated adults.
The cavorting upstairs got louder. Stevie was probably imitating Leo’s dance. Mariel seemed not to notice. “I think you should ask Rabbi Melman for security footage,” she said. “And I think you should show it to a neurologist.”
Leo groaned. He didn’t want to discuss God with a neurologist. He didn’t want to discuss neurologists with Rabbi Melman. He deeply did not want to watch himself on CCTV, performing what he suspected would look like a sped-up, Judaic version of Monty Python’s
Ministry of Silly Walks.
“I told you, it wasn’t a seizure.”
Mariel put a hand on his knee. “Just in case.”
Leo heard a new series of thumps. Stevie, descending the stairs on his ass. Henry barked behind him. Had Henry been walked today, or fed? Had he shat somewhere mysterious? When Leo let Mariel persuade him—another lost argument—to buy a four-bedroom house in Frederick, Maryland, he’d expected more children, not more accidental bathrooms for his aging dog.
Stevie arrived on the first floor, which Leo took as his out. “Let’s talk about it later, okay?” he said, and, before Mariel could object, “I love you.”
“Hey, Alexa!” Stevie shouted from the kitchen, and the Bluetooth speaker chirped to life.
Mariel sighed. “I love you, too.”
Stevie raised his voice even higher. “Hey, Alexa! Play Talking Heads, Speaking in Tongues.”
According to Stevie, what happened at Micah Parker’s bar mitzvah was first scary, then hilarious. Out of nowhere, his dad jumped up like he’d been bitten, started shouting in some non-English, non-Hebrew language, and zoomed down the synagogue aisle with his arms in the air, huge blue sweat patches spreading beneath his suit jacket. Micah, mid-Haftorah, stopped and stared. Stevie could not fathom what his dad was doing—secret ritual? Grown-up prank? — but he recognized both the gratitude on Micah’s face and the fury on Rabbi Melman’s, and filed his dad’s dancing as a potentially useful tool for liberating himself from boring adult events. Leo was right: on getting home, Stevie practiced the dance before his mother’s full-length mirror, flapping his elbows and gyrating his torso till he was certain he had it down.
According to Mariel, Leo’s performance was alarming and potentially life-altering, but not inherently interesting. What interested Mariel was the explanation, which, she knew from long marital experience, would not interest Leo. Her husband took life—and now, apparently, God—at face value. Normally, Mariel appreciated that quality, since it made Leo a far better parent than she was, but today it scared the shit out of her. What if he decided this bolt meant he had to convert to Christianity? What if he started handling snakes? Or what if the bolt really was a neurological event, despite his insistence to the contrary, and Mariel had to quit her law firm and devote herself to caring for her husband while he died horrifically of a brain tumor? She loved him. She didn’t want him to suffer. If he had cancer, if it were hopeless, she would kill him before she let him linger in pain. And if he had hopeless Christianity, she would. Well. She would figure out something to do.
Leo himself was reminded of the trip he and Mariel had taken to Hawaii for their tenth anniversary, leaving Stevie, who was four then, with Mariel’s parents. Leo’s bowels, Jewish at the best of times, reacted poorly to air travel, and he didn’t shit for the first three days of the trip. Then, as he drove their rental car through the grayish-black lava fields of the Big Island, the Clash on the aux cord and a day of paragliding ahead, he was struck by a wave of rib-to-toe pain. Sweat burst from every known pore on his body. His teeth rattled with urgency. He skidded off the highway and ran. There was no shelter, no soft material, only a flat expanse of jagged pumice on which Leo squatted and shat. When he returned to the car, Mariel was weeping with laughter. What happened to you? she asked, and Leo—miserable, but mostly unsoiled—said, It was a bolt from hell.
On Monday, Leo went alone to see the rabbi. Melman had pulled the security footage in advance, but before handing it over, he said, “Leo, I’ve got to ask.”
“Please.” The rabbi settled in one of the leather wing chairs opposite his desk. “Take a seat.”
Leo lowered himself, accepting. A studio portrait of Melman’s enviably large family—five children, good Lord—hung opposite his chair. The walls were collaged with pictures of the Holy Land, most of which seemed to have been torn from A Year in Jerusalem calendars. This concerned Leo, who wanted to instill egalitarian, anti-racist values in his son. What if Beth Sholom’s Hebrew school was too Zionist to be trusted? But Frederick didn’t have a lot of synagogues to choose from, and Stevie needed a religious education. He needed some exposure to ancestral thought, not just to Alexa and Fortnite.
Melman, Leo realized, wasn’t planning to ask. He was just letting the question hang until Leo answered it.
“I don’t know,” Leo said. “I spoke in tongues.”
Melman cocked his head.
“You were there on Saturday, Rabbi. You heard me.”
Melman tented his fingers on his knees. Why wasn’t he sitting behind his desk? He was too close. Leo could smell his rabbinical detergent, see flakes of dead white rabbinical skin on his shirt.
“Leo,” he said. “Jews don’t speak in tongues.”
“Jews don’t shit in lava fields.”
Leo lifted his eyes to the window. He wanted out of this conversation. What if Melman began citing Scripture? If King David had made a habit of discoing through the Temple or Moses had done the Macarena with the burning bush, Leo had no desire to know.
“What I meant,” he said, “was that this doesn’t strike me as a question of what Jews do or don’t do. We know what I did. I pogoed through the synagogue shouting nonsense words, and not because I wanted to. It was some kind of compulsion, and it came from some kind of external, maybe divine force.”
Melman winced at divine force. Leo considered Mariel’s suggestion that he call a psychiatrist. Or a psychologist. He always forgot the difference. Presumably the neurologist could refer him to whichever one Mariel thought he needed.
“Look, Rabbi, I’m not Evangelical. I’m not any kind of Christian. My last name is Cohen, all right?” Melman held up a palm, but Leo barreled on. “I’m a Jew. That’s not up for debate. So I need to know what happened to me, meaning what that external-slash-divine force really was. Which is why I need that security footage.”
Leo rose from his overstuffed chair. The rabbi, still seated, took a flash drive from his corduroy pocket, and Leo all but snatched it from his hand.
“Thank you, Rabbi.”
“Good luck, Leo.” There was a note of despair in Melman’s voice, which Leo tried to ignore. He’d gotten what he needed. Approval would be too much to ask.
Mariel was at her law firm’s lunchtime yoga class. The Baltimore harbor gleamed greenish-white out the window. A seagull wheeled across the sky, and on the horizon, a square tanker trundled toward Europe. Mariel imagined the determined tourists at Phillips Crab Deck twelve stories below, bundled against the February chill. She envied their crab bibs and mallets, their lemon wedges and shakers of Old Bay. Before she made partner, Mariel celebrated at the crab shack every time she won a trial. Now, her cases settled out of court.
She returned her focus to the room—to the mat, as the teacher would say—and engaged her core muscles in Warrior Two. Around her, the women and low-ranking men of Freedman & Brace stretched their arms, tucked their tailbones, and held their necks high. Yoga always reminded Mariel how similar she and her female colleagues looked. Three-quarters of them were white. All were thin. All but two had naturally or chemically straight hair. The five Jewish women, Mariel included, wore the same Star of David from Tiffany’s. Every one had a pedicure without flaws.
Mariel had gotten her toes done on Sunday, leaving Stevie and Leo to speak in tongues together. She had requested the deluxe spa treatment and paid on the joint credit card. Once, she had heard a woman in the nail salon describe this treatment as spiritual, but all Mariel felt sloughing away was dead skin.
Now, she cartwheeled her arms to the mat and hopped her feet into High Plank. Her triceps were getting stronger. Westernized yoga pretended to be about spirituality, but really, it was just about physical strength.
Mariel wanted to have a spiritual experience. Not in front of her entire synagogue, but she did want to have one. She envied Leo that, assuming it wasn’t a sign of some greater misfire. God knew he’d done enough drugs before he met her to solder some circuits.
She kept thinking about Leo during Corpse Pose, when she was supposed to be clearing her mind. She was, she discovered, not just envious but truly jealous. She wished the bolt had chosen her, and resented the fact that it hadn’t. If the bolt was God, and God was all-seeing, shouldn’t God have seen that Mariel deserved a divine visitation more than Leo did?
Mariel knew she was being unfair. She shouldn’t resent Leo for having a spiritual experience—except that he wouldn’t pursue it. He was perfectly capable of receiving one-on-one communion with God and taking it for granted. He wouldn’t search for the bolt’s meaning. He wouldn’t interpret its signs. If Mariel had gotten the bolt, she’d have made appointments not only with the Johns Hopkins neurology center, where Leo was now, but with every scholar in the university’s Religious Studies department. She would write to every rabbi in the Mid-Atlantic. She’d donate herself to Yeshiva University for study.
Not Leo. Leo didn’t do research. He wasn’t a fan of hard work. That was why he’d stagnated at WYPR, and why he kept asking for a second baby. He wanted a parental do-over, not an evolving relationship with the child they already had.
Leo hadn’t texted by the time yoga class ended, which Mariel hoped wasn’t a bad sign. Stevie had sent her three lollipop emojis, followed by Can I??
Can you do what? Mariel wrote back.
He replied immediately. Buy candy for school fundraser
Fundraiser, Mariel texted. And yes, you may.
Thank you Mom!! he wrote, and then, Congratulations! The word triggered a cascade of multicolored balloons on her screen. When had he learned that trick? And why—Mariel was ashamed that this hadn’t occurred to her sooner—was he texting during the school day? For what possible reason had she gotten her fifth-grader a phone?
She knew why. She’d wanted to pull more parenting weight, and so she’d made herself into the remote authority of Stevie’s life, doling out permissions from Baltimore while her husband packed lunches, drove carpool, organized birthday parties and researched summer camps.
Maybe this tongue-speaking was a divine message for Mariel, not Leo. Maybe God was telling her to re-jigger her marriage. Give Leo a different kind of do-over. Maybe, if all was well in the folds of her husband’s brain, Mariel should take a turn as primary parent. Chauffeur Stevie to playdates, take him crabbing at Breezy Point Beach.
She couldn’t. She’d last three weeks. She did better as the distant parent, the logistics parent, the parent at the helm of the ship. She would be better off having a second child than taking over day-to-day care of the one she already had.
Gratitude to Leo washed through her, combined with guilt. Maybe that was the bolt’s real message. Mariel Chalfont, give your husband the baby he wants, or he’s going to become a snake-handling Christian and leave you.
Mariel shook the thought away. She texted Leo three hearts, then locked herself in the accessible bathroom and set about cleaning her armpits with eucalyptus-scented baby wipes. Her phone buzzed: Leo, sending not hearts but updates. Dr. Evans, the Hopkins neurologist, had dismissed his worries. Can do MRI and PET scans, but says speaking in tongues not a bad sign, brain-wise. Says there have been plenty of studies—Baptists, Pentecostals, etc. She says I am probably fine.
A month after Micah Parker’s bar mitzvah, Stevie’s dad announced at dinner, “Stevie, you should know Dad’s completely healthy. One hundred percent all right.”
Stevie crossed his arms. “In my class, we learned to use I statements.”
“Sorry.” His dad didn’t sound annoyed in the slightest. “I meant I’m all right. I went to a bunch of doctors and had a bunch of scans. I even talked to an expert at the University of Pennsylvania who studies people who speak in tongues, and he confirmed nothing’s wrong with me. Nothing neurological, nothing psychological.”
He took a pink bite of salmon, which was proof of insanity as far as Stevie was concerned. Stevie wouldn’t eat salmon if you paid him. He knew, because his parents had tried.
“What was supposed to be wrong with you?” Stevie asked.
“We were just making sure,” his mom said. “After what happened at Micah’s bar mitzvah.”
“Yes. The dancing.”
Stevie swung his legs. “Is dancing bad?”
His parents examined each other. “No,” his mom said. “It could have been a bad sign, but it wasn’t.”
“What was it?”
“Something from God.”
Henry, lying beneath Stevie’s chair, released a ruinous fart. Henry was seventy-seven in dog years, which gave him rights that Stevie would like to share. Stevie would like to be an Airedale like Henry, and spend his time sleeping and farting instead of discussing God.
“We’re learning about sex in school tomorrow,” he told them.
“Stevie, that’s great,” his mom said.
His dad leaned forward. “Are you going to talk about consent?”
The answer was yes—Stevie had seen it in the homework packet—but he saw an opportunity to escape dinner and its discussions. “Is that a hole?”
His mother screwed up her face so she looked like a knot in a tree. Without opening her eyes, she said, “Is consent a hole?”
“Yeah.” Stevie took a bite of fish stick. Through the crumbs, he said, “To put it in.”
Henry farted again. His dad groaned. Stevie ate the rest of his fish stick, then washed it down with bluish 1% milk. He was almost certain he’d gotten himself ejected from dinner. Since the dancing, it had been easier than before.
Proving him right, his dad said, “Yes, Stephen. Consent is a hole. Please ask Miss McKenzie about it tomorrow. You may be excused.”
Having received a clean bill of cognitive and psychiatric health, Leo wanted to be cleared by the rabbi. He wanted Melman to admit that the bolt was a possibility within Judaism; that he, Leo Cohen, could have had an authentically Jewish visit from God. More pressingly, he wanted to confirm that God didn’t plan to come back. He wanted to tempt fate so that fate could turn him down.
Leo told Mariel none of this. He only said, “I’m going to synagogue on Saturday. To see if it happens again.”
“Do you want it to?”
She was oiling her limbs, which she did every night before bed. Leo watched, appreciating the slick glow of her biceps, the fine twist of her ankles and calves. Mariel’s body had always struck him as fundamentally precious, like a piece of gold jewelry come alive.
“Well?” she asked again. “Do you?”
Mariel set her oil down. “You could.” She turned toward him, her gaze gentle. “You had a real spiritual experience, Leo. I would understand your wanting to have it again.”
Leo thought once more of the lava field. His chest tightened. “It didn’t feel good.”
Mariel perched on the bed beside him. “You never told me how it did feel.”
Leo turned off the light, and Mariel slid beneath the covers, arranging herself in his arms. She smelled like rose hips and orange peel. He put his palm on her belly, then her breast. “May I?”
“Consent is a hole.”
They both laughed, and Leo ran his thumb over her nipple. “It felt great,” he said. “And horrible.”
Mariel pressed her hips into his crotch. “At the same time?”
“At the same time. It was like I was on a roller coaster, but the roller coaster was inside me. Like my whole self had gone completely rogue.”
“Did you feel a divine presence?”
“I don’t know, Mariel. I might have. But that doesn’t mean I want it to happen again.”
Leo shut his eyes. He was most of the way to an erection. He walked his hand along Mariel’s thigh, collecting useful oil, and she rolled onto her back so he could begin more meaningful foreplay.
Mariel parted her knees. “You said it was God.”
“I don’t have any other framework to put it in. You know? If it looks like speaking in tongues, and it sounds like speaking in tongues, then—” he pushed two fingers inside Mariel, who gasped— “it’s probably speaking in tongues.”
“I’ll make you speak in tongues,” she said, reaching toward him. Leo kissed her, and soon afterward, in a true moment of divine mercy, she wriggled beneath the blankets and put both Leo’s balls in her mouth.
Mariel offered to accompany Leo to synagogue, but he refused. Four Saturdays in a row, she sat at home and reviewed briefs while Leo waited for God, who never came. Every week, Leo reported that there had been no tongues. No dancing. No divine presence. He’d sat like a perfectly normal Reform Jew—meaning, sat and resisted the urge to check his phone—and nothing happened. He made it through the service just fine.
The fourth week, Mariel asked, “Are you disappointed?”
“Am I what?”
Leo had been rooting in the fridge, and now emerged with a lime LaCroix in one hand and one of Stevie’s Polly-O string cheeses in the other. He was still wearing his jacket and tie. Mariel, who was wearing yoga tights and a stretched-out Bad Brains T-shirt of Leo’s, said, “Disappointed. I mean, you had something, and then you lost it.”
“Is that what you think happened?”
Mariel pushed her stool back. Henry, who had been asleep at her feet, eyed her fretfully. She sat down to comfort him, and he rested his soft, silvering head in her lap. Above, she heard the fizz of a can opening, then the refrigerator door sucking itself shut. Light streamed onto the wooden floorboards, catching in Henry’s hair so he glowed.
“Are you planning on answering me?” Leo asked, peeling the string cheese.
“Downstairs. Is that a no?”
Mariel stroked Henry’s ribs. She had no idea why she was stalling. She knew where Stevie was: in the basement playing Fortnite, where he would remain until the Messiah came. Maybe she really had been wrong to choose only one child. Maybe Stevie-with-a-sibling would be a bit less devoted to screens.
Mariel doubted it. She was the one who’d given Stevie his phone, his tablet, his lax TV schedule. She was the one who needed him parked somewhere, entertained. With two children, surely that need would double, not halve.
Mariel herself had grown up in a house with six kids and no rules about TV time, or anything else. Her parents fought too much to make rules, let alone enforce them. Her father was a Baltimore newspaperman, her mother a relocated Soviet Jew. They had incompatible worldviews. If Mariel told her mother that Leo had spoken in tongues, she’d start spitting on the floor to ward off evil. If she told her father, he’d laugh, then call Spring Grove Hospital Center.
Leo sat down beside her. “Mariel.”
“I’m sorry. I was off base.”
She ran her hand down Henry’s bony hind leg. The dog hung his pink tongue out, panting with joy. His teeth were a scummy yellow-orange, like he’d been eating Cheetos.
“Just tell me what you meant.”
Mariel leaned against the island. She loved her island. She’d picked out its marble countertop and maple siding, its stainless bar sink with the sprayer hose. Renovating the kitchen had been a highlight of the past decade—which sounded pathetic, but was true. Mariel had grown up in rentals, and choosing her house’s features made her feel safe and grateful, like when Leo buckled his arms around her in the night.
She raised her eyes to her husband. “You had this bolt. It picked you, out of all the Jews at Beth Sholom. That’s special, right? You got visited by this special power. Doesn’t that make you feel good?”
“No, Mariel. It makes me feel like an asshole.”
“Why an asshole?”
“You saw me. I looked like an idiot. You were furious at how dumb I looked.”
“I’m sorry.” Mariel’s throat tightened. Something bitter rose under her tongue. “I’m sorry, Leo. I shouldn’t have been angry.”
She leaned toward him, and he gave her a kiss that tasted like salt and chemical lime. “You don’t have to be sorry,” he said.
“Yes, I do. I was a terrible wife.”
“I mean it. In that moment, I was a terrible wife. I should have stopped being scared and supported you. Told you speaking in tongues was all right. I should have told you we could be Christians. We could have found a tongue-speaking church. An Evangelical one. Or Baptist. I could have helped you pursue your connection to God.”
“I don’t want to pursue it.” Leo’s tone was very cold. “I don’t want to be Evangelical. I don’t want to be Christian. I want to be a Jew like my parents, and their parents, and their parents before them. A regular Reform Jew.”
“Okay.” Mariel swallowed. “But God can come to Jews.”
“You’re not listening.”
“Neither are you!” Mariel pushed Henry’s head from her lap, and he rattled himself, offended. “Leo,” she said. “I was jealous. I didn’t want you to have God and not me.”
Leo recoiled. He stood, Henry leaping to his side. “I’m sorry,” Mariel said again. “I was so selfish.”
“You’re being selfish now.”
He was right. Mariel knew he was right. She had never, not once, admitted to envying Leo aloud. Not when she was gunning for partner and slept four hours a night, not when she was whalelike with Stevie, not even when they returned from Hawaii and their son barreled past her to leap into his father’s arms.
The memory brought tears to Mariel’s eyes. She pushed on the bridge of her nose, trying to suppress them, as Leo said, “I don’t want to talk about it any more. Ever.”
“Stop. Mariel, stop.”
She couldn’t. “God came to you. God picked you, and then I shamed you for it. I—” she swallowed— “pathologized it. I pushed you away from God.”
“Pathologized.” Leo shook his head. “Jesus Christ.”
A tear rolled down Mariel’s cheek. She wanted Leo to bend and wipe it away. Instead, he said, “I need you to stop this.” Then he clicked his fingers for Henry and left the room.
Stevie came upstairs to find his mother sobbing behind the kitchen island. Her cheeks were fever-red, her hair snarled. The sight opened a strange pit inside him. He sat on the floor and flicked her knee.
“What, Stevie? Do you need lunch?”
He had needed lunch—it was why he left the basement—but now he had no appetite. “Can you come play Fortnite with me?”
She blinked. Little tears clung to her eyelashes. She was wearing Stevie’s dad’s Bad Brains shirt with the lightning bolt hitting the Capitol, which was Stevie’s favorite shirt for sleeping. Under other circumstances, he would have demanded it back.
“You’ll like it,” he offered. “There are dances.”
His mom turned away, cleaning her face on her shoulder. “Dances.”
“Like this.” Stevie bopped his arms halfheartedly in the air, but his mom wasn’t watching. She was surveying the kitchen like it was an unknown landscape. Maybe she wasn’t his mom but a Martian, dropped off in Frederick to report on Earth culture. Maybe his real mom had been body-snatched.
“Tell you what,” the mom-Martian said. “I’ll play Fortnite with you for a little bit. But tomorrow, you’re coming on an adventure with me.”
The adventure turned out to be church. “Not really church,” his mom said in the parking lot. “It’s Unitarian.”
“They believe all religions are right.”
Stevie made a donkey noise with his lips. Everyone knew not all religions could be right. That was the point of religions, which the Unitarians turned out to understand. Inside their church, there were six multiracial Jesus statues, and the minister gave a long sermon about interfaith tales of the Christ Child. Stevie hated the Christ Child. He hadn’t been this bored since standardized tests.
Afterwards, his mother admitted, “That wasn’t quite what I wanted.”
“It wasn’t an adventure.”
“No,” she agreed. “But next week.”
Next week’s adventure was the Quaker Meeting House, which was even worse, because it was silent. The week after, they went to singing church, and then to the black-hat synagogue in Baltimore, where Stevie had to sit alone in the men’s section, surrounded by mothball-smelling Hasids who kept dancing to the Hebrew prayers. They went to Catholic Mass and to Baha’i prayers. They lit incense at Xá Lợi Temple, where monks in bronze robes moved behind the altar, arranging pink-rimmed flowers and smoking cigarettes while Stevie’s mother cried. He wanted to apologize for her, but he could tell the monks didn’t care.
In the car, she asked, “Did you like that one?”
Stevie drummed his heels on the seat.
He shook his head. He wanted to tell her he hated all the religions, but what if she cried again? Or got mad? She’d be mad if he told the whole truth, which was that he was embarrassed to keep going to all these temples and churches. He wanted to go on different adventures with her. Real adventures. Ones where she was happy on the drive back, not just the drive there.
Stevie couldn’t say that. He leaned his head on the window and watched the strip malls flash by. Nail salon, Panera, PetSmart, nail salon.
“Mom,” he said. “Do you want to get your toes painted?”
She looked at him in the rear view. “My toes?”
“I can come in with you.”
“Oh, Stevie.” He’d thought she might like the idea, but she sounded even sadder. “I don’t need to. We’re almost home.”
At home, Stevie locked himself in his room to assess the situation. He thought it might be a crisis. Lots of kids Stevie knew had a family crisis. There was a rash of divorce at his school. But based on the divorce kids’ descriptions of how their parents behaved, that seemed unlikely. Stevie’s mom didn’t shout about money, or get bad phone calls, or leave the house late at night. She never tried to persuade Stevie she was his favorite parent. She just tried to get him to like God.
Stevie slouched into his pillows. The glow-in-the-dark constellations above his bed released their faint midday light. Big Dipper, Orion, Cassiopeia. His dad stuck them up there when they moved in.
Maybe the crisis was about his dad and the dancing. Maybe his parents had been lying when they said it came from God, and it actually was a bad sign for his dad’s brain. Or maybe his brain was fine, but his body was sick. That would explain why Stevie’s mom was sad enough to cry in front of monks.
Stevie disliked this theory. Actually, he hated it. To disprove it, he went downstairs, where his dad was watching March Madness, and poked him hard in the gut.
“I’m checking for cancer.”
His father rolled his head back, exposing the wattled skin of his throat. On TV, a gigantic Texas Tech player sank a three-pointer. He spun across the court, arms wide with joy.
Stevie’s dad opened his arms, too. “Go for it.”
Stevie climbed across the couch, prodding his dad’s sunken ribs and saggy triceps. There was no tumor. There was only the usual loose skin beneath his polo and the smell of St. John’s aftershave.
Henry lumbered into the room, carrying his spit-whitened hedgehog. Stuffing bulged through its ripped seams. He hefted himself onto the couch, hedgehog in tow, and Stevie began checking him for tumors, too.
“Excited for middle school?” his dad asked after a moment.
Stevie made an extended fart sound. Henry shook his head till his tags jingled, then lowered his chin to his peanut-colored paws. The TV went to ads: first the Geico lizard, then the Army Reserves, then the Renaissance Festival, then the gold-necklaced Michelob girl.
“This reminds me,” his dad said. “I was thinking we could go to the Renaissance Festival next weekend.” The dog emitted a long sigh, and Stevie’s dad laughed. “Sorry, Henry. No dogs allowed.”
Stevie examined the small dreadlocks forming in Henry’s armpit, the twitching wet cells of his nose. He loved Henry, which was babyish, but true. The Renaissance Festival also seemed babyish. The jousting was fake. So were the swords. There were adults in Halloween costumes and girls getting flowers braided into their hair. Last spring, Stevie had been painfully conscious that the Festival was beneath him, but it was tradition. He and his dad had never missed a year.
“Am I tall enough to ride the elephant yet?”
His dad reached over to tug his hair. “You’re tall enough to ride whatever animal you like.”
The next Saturday, they drove to the Anne Arundel County Fairground, where Stevie learned that elephants smelled like dried dung and moved like old leaky boats. The camel, on the other hand, was soft and clean, with fur like the felt chairs Stevie remembered from preschool. Stevie had loved preschool. He got to bite people there, and sit in tents.
The camel lurched forward, and Stevie wrapped his arms around its hump. He could see the parking lot’s oceanic glitter through the browning pines. The fake castle soared to his right. A Maryland flag waved from its balsa-wood turret, which seemed not very Renaissance, but what did Stevie know? He took a long breath of blacksmith smoke, turkey grease, the churro stand’s liquefied-sugar smell. The food pavilion was close enough for him to see the snaking lines of women in petticoats and men in spray-painted breastplates. He could see his dad sitting at a crowded picnic table, drinking a medieval Budweiser and holding Stevie’s half-finished Sprite. Ordinarily, Stevie never got soda, but in the Renaissance, nutrition rules didn’t apply.
He leaned his head on the camel’s warm hump. The animal whickered gently as it ambled over the pine needles. Stevie wished he could get it to gallop. They could break through the trees, past the parking lot, onto Crownsville Road. Stevie would guide the camel to freedom. He’d become a roving cameleer, doing tricks and giving kids rides. There would be no middle school then. No new religions. No bad signs.
“Just you and me,” he told the camel. But then the camel stopped walking and refused to restart, and Stevie had to get down.
Driving back to Frederick, Leo wondered if he had another Renaissance Festival left before Stevie outgrew it. He’d been afraid this year would go badly, but Stevie had loved the animal rides. He was collapsed in the back seat, eyes lidded, stoned on sugar and camel. Leo wanted to collapse, too, but he had to go out to dinner with his wife.
Not had to. Date night had been Leo’s idea. He’d made a reservation, bought movie tickets, booked the babysitter. His hope was to distract Mariel from her obsessive new spiritual circling, or, if that failed, to get her to stop dragging Stevie along. He knew the odds of success on either front weren’t high.
Leo exited onto North Market Street, resisting the urge to stop at the roadside Dunkin’ Donuts. He had eaten a fried turkey leg less than two hours ago. He turned right at Governor Thomas Johnson Middle, and Stevie roused himself enough to hiss with dislike. Leo couldn’t blame him. Middle school was a grim time, as demonstrated by the angular kids playing basketball on the asphalt court. Their jump shots made them look like broken cranes. Behind them, the school’s fluorescent sign was missing half its letters. LA T DA F SC OL M Y 28, it announced.
To Leo’s surprise, Stevie decoded its message. “How many days between May 28th and the day I leave for summer camp?”
Leo waited a moment, to create the impression that he needed to count. “Twenty-two.”
“What are you going to do with me in them?”
“Do with you?”
“You know.” Stevie sounded forlorn. “Will Mom just take me to more religions?”
Leo bit back his anger at Mariel. To calm himself, he looked at his son, who was slumped against the car door, Nike shirt hiked up to expose the round drum of his stomach. Immediately, Leo was transfixed with love.
He understood that Mariel would never agree to have a second child. He could even understand her reasons: demanding job, fear of chaos, devotion to parenting Stevie as best she could. But why didn’t she understand that parenting Stevie would end? That soon, Stevie would hit his first growth spurt, and they would never see a little-boy potbelly like this again?
“Dad.” Stevie sat forward. “Will she?”
“No,” Leo said, as if he had the power to promise. “She won’t.”
He signaled, then turned onto Rockwell. Across the street, Jason Parker was washing his Audi. Leo honked and waved, and Jason sprayed water in the air in greeting. Jason and Joanna had already forgiven him for speaking in tongues at Micah’s bar mitzvah. So had Micah himself, who was thrilled with the Orioles tickets Mariel had bought him. Last week, Melman had taken Leo aside to say how pleased he was to see him at temple, and how flattered he’d been by the Chalfont-Cohens’ generous contribution to the Rabbi’s Discretionary Fund. You’re a mensch, Leo, the rabbi had said. A few tongues could never change that.
Date night did not begin well. For starters, dinner was awful. Mariel’s pork chop had been breaded into oblivion. She still tried to eat it, but after three bites, she had the unwelcome thought that her ancestors hadn’t survived steerage and Stalinism so she could eat rubbery treif, and she pushed the plate away.
Leo seemed undisturbed by his oily scampi. “Want a bite?” he asked, extending a dripping forkful of shrimp.
Mariel shook her head.
“Please tell me you didn’t just decide to keep kosher.”
Mariel smoothed the starched tablecloth.
“In the middle of a pork chop?”
“I didn’t decide anything.”
“Mariel, soft-shell crabs are your favorite food.”
Leo took another bite of shrimp. Mariel considered bringing up her mother’s three siblings, who all died in Soviet gulags, but that would wreck dinner completely. Besides, it wasn’t like they kept kosher. No one in Mariel’s family had kept kosher since the Iron Age.
The kitchen door banged open, and Mariel watched the waitress stagger out, bearing two platters of wobbly lasagna. The maître d’ was scratching his lower back. The bartender, who looked barely older than Stevie, was mixing a viscous green cocktail that made Mariel want to weep.
“You know what?” she said.
Leo gave her a fearful look. “What?”
“I don’t want to see Captain Marvel.”
“You want to go home after this?”
“No. Let’s go to a bar.”
In the bar, Mariel remembered that she’d never been a good drinker. Certainly not good enough to drink two glasses of Chianti and two G&Ts after barely touching her food. But maybe getting drunk would wash away the sorrow that had taken up permanent residence between her molars and the back of her throat. She could taste it, like a rotten tooth.
She tried to explain this to Leo, who had to drive home and was therefore drinking club soda. “I wish I could swallow it,” she said. “Or throw it up.”
“Mar, honey—” He put out his arm.
“I’m not going to throw up. Don’t worry.” She drew herself tall on her stool. The brass bar was warm beneath her forearm, and the top-shelf bottles struck her as very beautiful in their richly lit ambers and greens. “I just want to have a spiritual experience.”
Leo sighed. “So you’ve mentioned.”
“I want to be less in control.”
He laughed slightly at that one. “You love control.”
“You know when I wasn’t in control?” She drank the gin residue at the bottom of her glass. “Childbirth.”
Giving birth to Stevie had been terrifying. Mariel had thought her pelvis would crack. She’d hallucinated her whole body splitting, her left and right sides separating like tectonic plates. For days after the birth, she’d been scared to move even an inch, convinced the pain—and the hallucination—would return.
Maybe she had been wrong to be afraid. Maybe the image had been a divine message of some sort. Maybe childbirth was a spiritual experience, and she’d missed it the first time around.
She looked at Leo, who was biting his chapped lower lip. He still wanted a second child so badly. He’d stopped bringing it up, but she knew.
“We could have another baby,” she said.
The air in the bar seemed to ripple. Leo’s entire body went still. Mariel did a Lamaze breath. “I mean it.”
“Don’t say that.”
“But Leo.” She felt clear and electric. “I do.”
“I know what I said.” Mariel waved a hand, as if that could erase a decade of insistence that she could only parent one child well. That was bullshit. She couldn’t parent any children well. Leo did the parenting, and so he should get to parent another kid if he wanted.
She slid from her stool and approached Leo. “Mariel,” he said. “Don’t fuck with me.”
“You have to mean this.”
“I promise.” Her voice cracked with certainty. This baby would be the answer. Once she was pregnant, she wouldn’t need church visits or lunchtime yoga. She wouldn’t waste nights drinking Bombay Sapphire in miserable cocktail bars. Getting pregnant would make her happy. Mariel knew it. She was sure.
Leo rested his hands on her hips, the pressure both seductive and steadying. Mariel swung herself toward him. They kissed, then kissed again. Mariel bit her husband’s lip. “I promise,” she said into his mouth. “I promise to have your baby. Now take me home and let’s try.”
To Mariel’s shock, they succeeded. She went to her gynecologist and had her IUD removed, and a month later, her period didn’t come. She felt triumphant. Forty years old, and pregnant in one shot. She was practically a fertility goddess. There should be statues of her at IVF clinics. Patients could light candles at her pedicured feet.
Still, she took six drugstore tests before returning to the gynecologist, who confirmed the results, then recited a string of statistics about— “Could you not call it geriatric pregnancy?”
“That’s what it’s called,” Dr. Feigel said. “Medically.”
Mariel folded her arms over her blue paper gown, which rustled like it was ready to tear. Two clear plastic uteri sat behind the doctor. One had a copper IUD inside, the other a pink plastic baby.
“I’m not medical,” she said. “Or geriatric.”
“I know.” Dr. Feigel wheeled her desk chair closer to the exam table. The diamond in her engagement ring was bigger than the embryo in Mariel’s womb. “You’re going to have to be a bit more careful than with your last pregnancy. Do an amnio. Watch your blood sugar.”
“Is it safe to tell my husband?”
The doctor narrowed her eyes. “Safe?”
Mariel tucked her hair behind her ears, the motion straining the gown still further. Maybe geriatric pregnancy qualified her for higher-quality hospital wear.
“He wants another child so badly. I don’t want him to be disappointed.”
“If you miscarry, you mean?”
“Or if I have to have an abortion.”
The doctor showed no sign of judgment. “You’re less than eight weeks pregnant,” she said. “If there are serious complications with the fetus, we won’t know for at least another month.”
Mariel touched her yoga-flat stomach. She couldn’t wait a month. Not when she knew how happy Leo would be. He would dance when she told him. He would sing the fetus lullabies. He would tell it stories, and tell Stevie stories about his own babyhood to prepare him. He’d teach Stevie how to hold the newborn gently, and— “Shit!”
“Are you all right?”
“My son’s fifth-grade graduation.” Mariel jumped from the exam table, tearing her gown in half. “It’s at 2:00. In Frederick. I have to go.”
Miraculously, she made it on time. Leo had saved her a spot in the fake-wood bleachers, right below the caged gym clock.
“Where were you?” he asked as she sat. “Traffic?”
“Tell you later.”
She kissed his cheek, feeling soft and content with her news. She would tell Leo soon. As soon as they had a moment of privacy. But she was glad she had a few more hours to keep the pregnancy to herself. With Stevie, Leo had held her hand through every urine test. This time, Mariel got to greet the baby in her own body first.
Her other baby perched below in his folding chair, wearing the same tie-dyed NORTH FREDERICK FOREVER shirt as his eighty-nine classmates. His hair stuck up strangely. It looked wet. She elbowed Leo.
“Did you let Stevie gel his hair?”
“He stuck his head in the water fountain.”
“To get spikes.”
The gym smelled like Superballs and Elmer’s glue. The floorboards were scuffed, and the white cinderblock walls were covered with primary-colored tempera handprints. Stevie drew his feet onto his folding chair and rested his chin on his knees.
The sound system chirped, then screeched, then went silent. Principal Mendes approached the podium, sneakers squeaking on the hardwood floor. She welcomed the parents, then passed the mic to Mr. Woods, who led the fifth graders in a rendition of Beyoncé’s “Halo.” To Mariel’s surprise, Stevie closed his eyes as he sang.
Mariel was proud of Stevie. He was a spike-haired handful, but also a sweet little boy. Not so little. He would be a good brother, she thought as Mr. Woods handed the mic to the homeroom teachers, who began to call their students one by one.
Stevie sat beautifully still during the A names. Mariel saw him fidget during the Bs. Around Gigi Byers, he got solemn, and by the time Anna Cerf crossed the gym, he looked genuinely afraid. Mariel’s chest ached for her son. Did he have stage fright? How could she have known? She’d never enrolled him in a performance class.
“Stephen Chalfont-Cohen!” Miss McKenzie called, and Stevie’s arms swung into the air. He leapt up, head tilted back. He wore a wild, wolfish grin.
“Shit,” Leo said.
Below them, Stevie yodeled, “Gamma!” His hands were still up, fingers spread like one of Bob Fosse’s dancers. “Yabam!”
Giggles spread through the class. The parents rustled in the bleachers. Mariel froze. Next to her, Leo said, louder, “Fuck.”
Stevie cavorted through the gym. Mariel’s pulse roared in her ears. His cronies—Brendan Marsh, Luke Harcourt, that bratty little Adam Stein—were cheering. Miss McKenzie had her face in her hands.
“Michelob!” Stevie shouted. His legs wheeled in his basketball shorts. “Primo! Stinkbug! Spit!”
Mariel couldn’t move. She was paralyzed with anger. Next to her, Leo tapped his feet on the bleachers, balling and flexing his hands. Why was he still sitting? Why wasn’t he chasing Stevie? Why didn’t some teacher get up and tackle their son to the ground?
She swiveled toward her husband. Leo was rocking in his seat like a Hasid preparing for prayer. His face was fervent, his mouth ajar. His Adam’s apple bobbed in his throat. He was clutching the bench beneath him, trying to hold himself down.
Gently, Mariel reached over and pried her husband’s hands loose. The second she’d freed him, he leapt to his feet. Strange words bubbled from his mouth. He clattered down the bleachers, and Mariel sat back and rested her hands serenely on her stomach, where the new baby was growing toward God. Leo’s incomprehensible shouts echoed through the gym. Stevie was still going, his fake tongues mixing with his father’s real ones. Teachers and parents swung into action, chasing the two Cohens down, but Mariel remained motionless. She made herself comfortable. She heard slapping sneakers, the serial crash of fallen folding chairs, but those sounds had nothing to do with her. She was only listening for God now. She would not rise till He came to get her. Mariel didn’t mind waiting. She’d stay here as long as He took.