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Eight is my favorite number. I think it’s a beautiful number; it has two-way symmetry, it’s an even number, it’s in my birth date (September 18th), and it’s the color of a blue sky. Okay, I know that last part must sound weird. But for me, numbers are not just squiggles on a paper or the stuff that makes your head ache in school. Numbers are… well, how can I say this? In my thirteen-year-old brain, numbers occupy a very special place. Numbers are alive. They have personalities, colors, and sounds. And since numbers are all around us (in case you haven’t noticed), they keep me company. Numbers distract me from whatever is making me feel nervous, sad, or bored. So maybe it does sound odd, but it certainly makes life more interesting.
Take right now, for instance, as I walk home from school on a Friday afternoon. My watch says it’s exactly 2:28 PM and up to this moment, it has been a pretty lucky day. I got a 96 on my Hebrew vocabulary quiz and an A- on my history project. Rabbi Lukins wasn’t in school today, so I had a free period and finished the homework that I didn’t do last night. My team won the volleyball game by eight points. My best friend Ruthie is once again talking to me after a pretty stupid fight. And, I have no zits on my face.
Crossing Fowler Street, I notice that the house with my favorite maple tree is number 314. (The numbers add up to 8!) Outside, the autumn air smells like damp leaves, and my black fleece jacket is soaking up the sun. Ahh… a perfect day.
My phone buzzes. There’s a text from Mom:
Please set Shabbat table. 8 guests.
I groan. Even seeing my favorite number doesn’t make me feel better about this message. I drop the phone into my pocket, and walk the four blocks to my house.
Now that I’ve told you a bit about The Numbers, I suppose I should tell you about The Guests.
“Doris!” I call from our foyer. I drop my backpack, hang up my jacket in the front closet, then take off my sneakers and deposit them in the basket. The usual procedure. “Doris! Help! Do something!”
The sound of the vacuum cleaner stops, and Doris appears on the stairway balcony overlooking the foyer. She’s dressed in her cleaning outfit: black stretch pants and a Boston Red Sox t-shirt.
“Hello to you, too,” she says. “What you screaming about?”
“Doris, there are eight guests tonight. I can’t take it anymore!”
“Yeah, yeah, and you say that last week?” she replies, lugging the vacuum down the stairs.
I follow Doris into the laundry room. “That’s exactly my point. When is it going to stop? Can’t we have one week without Shabbat guests?”
Doris hands me a stack of purple towels. “For your bathroom, princess.”
“Doris, really. You know what I’m talking about. Can’t you say something to my mom?”
Doris raises one eyebrow. “How long you lived in this house? Remind me.” She shakes her head. “Your mother a saint. And your father, too, for that matter.”
“What about me? Huh? Don’t I get any sympathy? Week after week, sharing my house and meals with strangers!”
Doris opens the dryer and pulls out more towels. “You call your grandparents strangers, or the Loring family, or Mrs. Kastleman a stranger?”
“Okay, so maybe they’re not all strangers, but it is getting annoying.”
“Well, how about you try keeping your room clean for two weeks, then I’ll try talking to your mom,” she says, snapping a towel.
Doris laughs. “Yeah, really. And I’ll tell her you don’t want to go to school no more, and she should let you stay out until midnight on weekends, too!”
She shoos me away. “Now, get going, sweetness. We got work to do.”
I storm out of the laundry room carrying my stack of towels. “It’s not fair!” I shout, stomping up the stairs. “The Sabbath is supposed to be a day of rest!”
When I open the door to my room, I immediately know it’s Friday. Doris has put away my massive pile of clothes, made my bed, vacuumed the purple carpet, and neatened up my dresser and desk. I walk into my bathroom and hang up the towels. The sink is free of toothpaste goo, the mirror is shiny, and my dozen hair and skin products are all lined up neatly on a shelf.
I love Doris.
I feel a twinge of guilt for using her as a punching bag. She’s used to it, I guess. Doris has worked for my parents since I was born. It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say she is like a second mother. She’s here every day when I get home from school, and sometimes, she stays over when Mom and Dad are out of town. Doris even came to my Bat Mitzvah last year. It was one of the only times I remember seeing her in a dress. Even though there are just three people living in this huge house, it’s Doris who keeps it running smoothly. Without her, something would have to change. And if there is one thing that I wish would change, it’s my parents’ guest policy.
Now, I’m all for the Jewish custom of hachnasat orchim, welcoming guests in your home. But, really, my parents take it to the extreme. It’s basically an open door policy around here. I never know who I’m going to run into in our hallway of guest rooms (yes, plural!), or in our study, or the kitchen. I can’t remember the last time I ate a meal with just my parents. Imagine that. Or maybe you are thinking that would be a relief. But what if it meant sharing your table with people you didn’t know (or didn’t like), and listening to boring conversation and explanations of Jewish rituals you’ve done hundreds of times. ‘Now, why is it you have two loaves of challah?’
My parents never seem to tire of this. And that’s where Doris comes in. Doris is the one who does most of the grocery shopping, laundry, table setting, and vegetable chopping while my mom’s at work. I hate to say it, but without Doris, my mom would be going crazy trying to get ready for all our guests before candle-lighting at sundown, the time when all work stops for observant Jews. Without Doris I’d be stuck with even more chores. Like today, for instance: I’ll set the Shabbat table (china, silver, goblets, cloth napkins in gold rings), slice the gefilte fish, and fill up the hot water urn. Not so bad. Doris, on the other hand, has already washed the floors, vacuumed, dusted, ironed, and polished Mom’s candlesticks. She’ll pick up the bakery order and the dry cleaning, prepare the guest rooms, make the salad, and warm up the soup, kugels, and chicken that my mom cooked last night. Then Doris will go home to her cozy apartment in Roslindale, where she lives with her sister and five-year-old niece. And my family gets to enjoy a peaceful twenty-four-hour Sabbath…with The Guests.
About an hour before Friday night candle-lighting, the guests will start to arrive. Some of them will come later with my dad on his way home from synagogue. And of course, I’ll have to introduce myself and answer the same questions over and over again. ‘So, what grade are you in?’ ‘Can you speak Hebrew?’ Maybe if I had cute little brothers and sisters, it wouldn’t be so bad. The attention would be focused on them, and I could easily excuse myself from the table. ‘Oh, time to put Ellie to bed,’ or ‘I think I hear the baby crying. I’ll get her, Mom!’ No such luck. And it doesn’t look like that is going to change. I know I shouldn’t say that. Miracles do happen. But now my mom is forty, and that might be too old. (Not that she ever talks to me about this.) So it’s just me, and my parents, and The Guests every Shabbat. Week after week.
My phone is ringing. Phew, it’s Ruthie. Just the friend I needed to vent to about tonight’s eight guests.
“So what else is new?” she says.
“Wanna come for dinner and keep me company?” I ask. Ruthie has five brothers. So she usually jumps at the chance to hang out at my house.
“Can’t. It’s Avi’s birthday. We’re celebrating tonight and I’m in charge of the baseball cake.”
“Will I see you in shul tomorrow?” I ask.
“Yeah, if I can wake up in time.” Ruthie is notorious for sleeping till noon and missing the Sabbath morning service in synagogue.
“It’s Jeremy Schlossberg’s Bar Mitzvah,” I remind her. “They’ll have a huge kiddush.” Jeremy’s parents own a catering business.
“Ooh. Then I’ll definitely make it. I bet they’ll have those chocolate éclairs they had at Shaina’s Bat Mitzvah. Wear your purple skirt, Tal. We’ll match.”
“Sure. That is, if Doris washed it.” Ruthie is really into clothes. And that’s a good thing, because thanks to her, I have a clue about fashion.
“Gotta go,” Ruthie says. “I still have to frost the cake before Shabbat. Good luck with your guests. Just chill. Everything will be fine!”
After Doris leaves, I finish my chores as fast as I can, so I still have some time alone in the house. I used to hate being alone, but now I kind of like it. There’s no one nagging you, reminding you to do this or that, or to stop doing this or that. Our house is really big and orderly, with lots of fancy furniture, paintings, and breakable lamps and vases, which is pretty different than most of my friends’ homes—especially the ones with lots of little kids running around. Which is the case with most of them. See, I’m the only kid in my school who doesn’t have siblings, with the exception of Chana Friedman who was in the Only Club until her mom had a baby last year. On the other extreme, there is Rachel Greenbaum, who is the middle child of twelve kids! I can’t even imagine that. Then there’s me. The One and Only.
I suppose if I wasn’t going to an Orthodox Jewish day school, I might not be so unusual. Religious Jews tend to have big families. You know, ‘be fruitful and multiply.’ If I ever get sulky about being an Only, I just have to go to Ruthie’s and watch her five brothers climb all over each other like tiger cubs.
My friends love coming to my house, though, I guess because it’s pretty, and because I have a cool game room in the basement. I get lots of compliments on my bedroom, since most of my friends have to share theirs with a sister (or two). I’m also the only one in the seventh grade with a backyard swimming pool. So, whenever we need a place for a surprise birthday party, girls’ swim party, or Saturday night get-together, my house is usually the spot. That, I don’t mind, because then I get to make the guest list.
One thing I like to do when I’m alone in the house is play the piano. We have a Steinway parlor grand that my father inherited from his father, my grandfather, Isaac Schumacher. (In case you didn’t know, a Steinway is the Mercedes Benz of pianos.) It’s in our living room, which is pretty formal. If it weren’t for the piano, I’d probably never even go in there.
When I’m alone in the house I can play whatever music I like, and however I like to play it, without my dad (who happens to be a really good musician) giving suggestions or yelling “Ow!” when I hit a wrong note. I like making up my own tunes, which is pretty easy for me because I get the patterns in music. Music and math go together like peanut butter and jelly, which I also happen to love (and anything chocolate). My favorite number is the building block of music: an octave, eight notes, the distance from C to C, D to D, E to E, etc. Just another reason 8 is so perfect, in my mind at least.
And there goes the doorbell. Who could that be? My parents aren’t even home yet. I close the piano and run to the front door. I peek through the hole (just like my mom taught me) and see an unfamiliar young woman with long dark hair, dressed in a multi-colored gypsy skirt and oversized ivory sweater. Maybe she’s one of those fanatic missionaries who come around on Fridays. Then I see she has a suitcase. And it’s pink! Yikes.
I hesitantly open the front door. The young woman smiles at me like I’m her long-lost relative. She’s so thin she looks like she could blow away in the fall breeze.
“Hi there. This is the Schumacher house, right?” She has a southern accent, which surprises me.
“Yes… but my parents aren’t home yet,” I reply.
“Oh, am I too early? I wasn’t sure how long it would take me to get here. I took a cab from the airport,” she says, looking past me. “Wow. This is an incredible house.”
“Are you staying for Shabbat?” I ask.
“That’s the plan, and I’m really looking forward to it.”
“Well… I guess you should come in.” I hate when my mother does this to me. I’m letting a total stranger into the house.
She steps inside our entryway and gives it the once-over. “Whew,” she whistles. “Someone really knows how to decorate. Beautiful taste.”
“Thanks.” I notice that her suitcase is pretty big for an overnight. And she’s got a guitar case, too. “I’m Talia.”
She extends her hand. “Nice to meet you, Talia. I’m Gabrielle Markus. Back home my friends used to called me Gabby.”
I nod, wondering which name I should use. Now comes the awkward moment. What am I supposed to do with her? “Um, do you want something to eat or drink?”
“No, thank you. I had a sandwich on the plane. Where should I put my bag?”
I have no idea which room she is supposed to stay in, so I’ll just guess. Doris must have forgotten to tell me. “Follow me.” I lead Gabrielle up the staircase. “Have you met my parents before?” I ask.
“Not yet,” she replies. “I’ve just talked to your mom on the phone and over e-mail. She seems like an amazing woman. It was really nice of her to invite me to stay, especially after the busy holidays,” Gabrielle says as we head down the hallway to the guest room I figure would be best for a single girl. “Wow, those are some great paintings. That’s Chagall, right?”
“Yeah.” I don’t bother telling her they are originals.
The guest room is across from my room, unfortunately. When I open the door, I smell the faint scent of lavender, a touch from Doris, no doubt.
“Here you are.”
“What a beautiful room!” Gabrielle puts her bag down. “I’m used to crashing on my friend’s couch. This is going to be a treat for sure.” She surveys the room. “And my own bathroom, too. Hey, this is first-class hosting.”
So I’ve been told.
“You’re not from Boston, are you?” I ask her.
“My accent gives me away, huh? Well, actually, it’s a long story. The short answer is no, but I’m here temporarily.” She plops down on the bed. “Ooh, comfy. So, I was born in Texas. My family moved around a lot in the southern states—Georgia, Florida, I can’t even remember them all. My dad is in the military. Eventually I ended up in the Big Apple.” She opens her arms wide. “New York, New York!” she sings. “Well, that’s a long story, too. And now, well, I’m in Boston for a while. Trying to find myself, you could say.”
“Oh.” The short answer would have been fine with me.
“How old are you?” she asks. “Twelve?”
“Ah, I remember thirteen.” She says this as if she’s holding a big secret. “I just turned twenty-three. A lot can happen in ten years. Hey, did you have your Bat Mitzvah this year?”
“Last year. We do it at twelve.”
She snaps her fingers. “Right. Should have remembered that. I grew up Reform and they do it at thirteen. Not that I even had a Bat Mitzvah. My parents weren’t into the synagogue scene. Matzah balls and bagels. That kind of stuff. Food Jews.”
This is all getting too personal for me. “Well, I need to do a few things before Shabbat—”
“Oh, don’t let me keep you.” She jumps up from the bed. “Do you need any help?”
“No, uh, I’m all set. Thanks.”
“Well then, I guess I’ll take a shower and do a little stretching, if there’s time,” she says. “When is candle-lighting?”
“6:05,” I say. “I’ll tell my mom you’re here. So… just make yourself at home.” (That’s what my mother always says.)
She gives me a big smile. “Thanks, Talia.”