“What’s the thing about the palm frond again?” Katelyn nudges me on our way up the front walk to Muriel’s door. It’s the first night of Sukkot, the Jewish festival of huts, and Muriel is hosting the lot of us – me, Mama, Papa, Rivki, Jamie, and I’ve brought Katelyn. For days, I’ve been preparing her for her first Jewish holiday with my family. How she won’t be allowed to speak after we wash our hands before eating the bread, how many times she’ll be asked to stand for a blessing, how to hold the citron without God forbid dropping it, who doesn’t like when you say what.
“There are a lot of things,” I say. “Don’t worry too much about the palm frond. Just follow my lead.”
“Okay,” she nods solemnly, like I’ve just given her instructions for a high-stakes heist. “Anything else?” We’re approaching the front step, and Katelyn’s switched to an urgent stage whisper.
“I mean, the obvious thing, which you know. We’re eating in a tent. It will be cold, but we’ll wear our coats through dinner and drink a lot of wine.” I pause. Katelyn is new but I still want her to know this one is important to me. “Also, that it’s my favorite.”
“I mean I know it’s your favorite.” Katelyn gives me that entreating all-eyebrows face that makes her look like a Hanson brother circa 1996.
“But promise me you won’t let my glass get empty? I’m very cold-blooded.”
“Charmer,” I whisper. “Be good.” I don’t know exactly what I mean as it comes out of my mouth, but I know that I am both flirting and also, at some level, that I mean it.
My family catches up behind us and we arrive at Muriel’s stoop.
Muriel greets us, fills the doorframe with her width, ruddy-cheeked from both the oven and the outdoors. “So this must be Katelyn,” she says, whipping off her yellow apron, eyes fixed on me as she exaggeratedly raises and drops her eyebrows over a well-lipsticked smirk. Muriel has the subtlety of a fairy godmother. Katelyn reaches out a hand to shake Muriel’s and Muriel, in response, pulls both Katelyn and me into a fleshy-armed embrace, our faces jointly smushed against her chest. “I’m so glad to meet you. Anyone who makes my Sarahleh so happy.” I blush, but thankfully, my face against my cousin’s clavicle, no one can see me, not even Katelyn.
Muriel ushers us out to the sukkah, the hut in question. It’s even more beautiful than it is any other year, because this year, I’m watching Katelyn, big-eyed, take it all in. The walls of the sukkah are a dark green canvas, pulled taut over the wooden frame that Muriel, who, for our family, has always been mystifyingly handy, built by herself. The upper interior of the sukkah is strung with tiny lights, and there are small multicolored paper lanterns hung from the middle, issuing a diffuse, warm glow. The beams along the top are festooned with bunches of plastic fruit, tiny bundles of dried flowers in burgundies and ambers, wreaths of leaves, and garlands of beads and pompoms. An exuberance of color. The canvas is hung with tapestries, and, along one wall, a collection of laminated cards bearing blessings and liturgical excerpts, lovingly safety-pinned to the canvas, quivering when prompted by the wind. Muriel’s table takes up the whole middle of the tent, sparkling with festivity. The cream white tablecloth, the gleaming silverware, the slender wineglasses standing ready. The soft ceramic plates nestled in one another, the silver ritual cups – passed down from Muriel’s mother, Mama’s aunt – dotting the table, and a large bouquet of orange flowers at the center. I save the looking up for last. And then, ceremonially, I dip my head back. My favorite part has always been the deliberate crisscross of the bamboo ceiling, the whole assemblage designed to be holey enough to let the starlight through. The porous ceiling – a hodgepodge of bamboo stalks in a variety of lengths and widths – is crowned by an embarrassment of greenery, brambling vines and lengths of feathery willow. I marvel at it, how I somehow feel at once sheltered and exposed. It’s a barely-barrier. It’s the sky coming in. It makes me feel like, at least in the space of this tent, I am truly elsewhere.
When I was thirteen, Papa sent me to gather the plants and branches to lay across the bamboo on top of the sukkah. I was thrilled. I wanted to find the wildest plants that I could. We lived in the Maryland suburbs and there was not much wondrous flora, but I was determined. I wanted strange leaves. I wandered around the neighborhood for what felt like hours trying to forget my way, to stumble upon something new – something that wasn’t an evergreen or a honeysuckle. Something I didn’t have a name for. I walked in circles. It was unsettling, how all of the streets connected back to ours. I returned with a bouquet of branches I’d stealthily removed from some neighbors’ yards but I couldn’t shake the stuck feeling, frustrated that I hadn’t figured out how to unplace myself. And I wanted to, even though I didn’t quite know what that meant.
I haven’t told Katelyn this, not exactly. What I did tell her on our first date, two drinks in, while trying to navigate us via Google maps to our second bar because it was that kind of date, was that I have zero sense of direction but that I somehow still have a hard time getting lost. When she asked me what I meant, I told her that I’d grown up in a small Orthodox Jewish suburb, that all roads led back to the synagogue or to the strip mall, and that I’d never spent much time anywhere more unruly. I didn’t tell her that I’d also grown up steeped in sets of unrelenting ancient dictums, and that despite being a very queer thirty-two, I still feel disproportionately subject to the rules. It’s part of my fabric.
I am barely willing to admit it to myself, that I still don’t quite know how to get out of the neighborhood, so I would die before admitting it to this handsome farm-bred fox with whom I was faced, staring down the prospect of drink three. Katelyn had grown up on a rambling farm in Vermont surrounded by thickets of apple trees, spending her afternoons fully lost and digging in the dirt. I felt some particular combination of jealousy and awe as she told me the names of trees I’d never seen or thought to notice.
Sukkot might be the wildest thing I have to show her, this new girlfriend, the one who’s too antsy to be indoors for long, who would sooner watch horses walk in circles than watch one episode of anything with me. Sukkot is wilder than Papa likes to admit. He tenses up in proximity to the forbidden. He doesn’t allow glass-clinking in his presence, for example, because, he says, the gesture has its roots in paganism. And what about shaking a palm branch in the four cardinal directions? We egg him on, challenge him, we are grown and think differently than he does now. In a hut built under the stars? Decorated for festive wine-soaked meals in the harvest season? Singing joyful songs at the tops of our lungs? That’s not pagan? Papa doesn’t love this particular challenge. “It’s a very spiritual holiday,” he says. “We are close to God. God is close to us. It’s simple. It’s not pagan.” Truth is, it’s neither. It’s wild. There is no God and us. There is no us and God. There is only the whirl of the disappearing both. I want to tell Katelyn about this, as I watch her take in the bounty of Muriel’s sukkah, her eyelashes illuminated in lantern light, want to ask her if this is what it can feel like all the time, to step off the edge.
As we descend the stairs into the sukkah, Muriel passes each of us something to carry – me, two bottles of wine; and Katelyn, the schnapps for later, because Muriel doesn’t mess around. She hoists up an enormous bowl of meatballs – it’s that perfect sweet and sour combination and my mouth actually waters at the smell – and sets it down at the center of the spread. We edge around the table, squeezing our bodies past the folding chairs and wedging ourselves in. Papa and Mama sit at one end, Muriel at the other, like always. Rivki and Jamie sit on one side, and Katelyn and I sit on the other, a human square. Papa immediately starts banging on the table with gusto and launches into singing his favorite wordless Sukkot melody. Mama bangs, too, and soon, we are all banging on the table with the flats of our palms and the sides of our fists, the silverware and glasses bouncing with the impact, rhythmic clinks of glass and metal. I can hear Katelyn next to me trying to hum the melody like a sport, banging along like she’s been doing this all her life. Jamie doesn’t bang but I can hear him quietly singing, and Mama looks around approvingly.
“Remember last year, Jamie?” Muriel looks across the table conspiratorially. It’s not officially Sukkot until we’ve aggressively reminisced about last year’s Sukkot.
“The chicken?” Jamie smiles and rolls his eyes. He’s not always the most comfortable at our holiday gatherings but Muriel has a way of making everyone feel included. I turn to Katelyn, since she’s the only one who doesn’t know the story.
“She’s talking about how, last year, Rivki only wanted to eat ethically butchered kosher chicken. . .”
“I’m off that wagon now,” inserts Rivki.
“. . . and how since Jamie was coming down from New York, he had to pick up the frozen chicken from this Brooklyn ethical kosher butcher and actually packed it in his suitcase, dragged it all the way here. It was so heavy, his suitcase broke in the middle of 34th Street and he had to lug the thing in his arms like an unwieldy baby and field frozen chicken questions from strangers.” Everyone is cracking up. We can’t get enough of this story. “Didn’t you have to leave the chicken with a befuddled doorman in a lobby at some point? I think we named the chicken Fritz. Fritz, right?”
“It was really good chicken!” Rivki insists. Papa is laughing, that rare deep laugh I love. Katelyn is laughing too.
“Your family is funny,” she whispers. I hope she means it in a good way.
“Let’s eat,” says Muriel. “Nobody wants Fritz to get cold.”
Muriel asks us to come into the kitchen to help serve the mountainous feast. We set up an assembly line – Muriel stands in the kitchen, passes a dish to Rivki, Rivki hands it to me, and I hand it to Mama, who lowers it to Papa, who puts it on the table. Out come two giant golden challahs, ornately braided, still warm from the oven. Out comes a giant tureen of chicken, stewed with plums and olives. Out comes Mama’s noodle kugel, dense and slippery with oil, sweet and peppery at once. Out comes a salad, greens from the garden, golden beets and walnuts. Everything joins the impressive bowl of meatballs the smell of which periodically catches the breeze.
“Muri,” says Mama. “Do you think there’s enough food?”
“Probably not,” says Muriel.
Katelyn, emboldened by the combination of humor and extreme culinary bounty, chimes in. “If every Jewish holiday is like this, I’m coming more often.”
I giggle nervously and look at Papa to see how he’ll react, but he’s eyeing the meatballs. I can’t blame him. I want him to like her. I just want him to like her.
After the ritual blessings, the food starts making its way around the table. Our plates are heaping. The wind intensifies and Jamie puts his arm around Rivki, who’s woefully underdressed. I squeeze Katelyn’s hand under the table. “So nu, Muri,” Mama says, ladling some meatballs onto Papa’s plate and then onto her own. “How’s business?” She means the new online shop Muriel has started, bold-print head coverings for Orthodox women.
It’s weird; the table is warm and heaping and everyone’s joking but there’s still a stiffness I can feel, even in the open air. Maybe it’s just the fact that I’ve never wanted so badly for my family to understand something they haven’t before. I know Rivki feels this, too, sitting there with Jamie. We come in now, grown visitors who bring our own visitors, and we’re all trying to remember this into some workable version of home. I look around the table and wonder what Katelyn sees. Papa’s big beard, the one that makes him look even more stern and cinematically rabbinic than he is. Mama’s broad shoulders, her baubles and her turquoise felt hat. Rivki’s short-sleeved floral dress like she’s forgotten what season it is, clinging to Jamie, who’s dressed out of the fall issue of a J. Crew catalogue, for dear life. I look to Muriel to begin talking about her funky snoods, but before she can answer, though, there is a scuffling sound by the flap that functions as the sukkah door, right by Katelyn’s feet.
“What.” She stands quickly, her face all vigilance, her arms outstretched at chest level, slightly shaky but combat-ready. I watch her steady herself. Her alarm ripples outward, everyone trying to locate the scratching sound directly under our table. It is arrhythmic: a fast rustle, a stopping, a fast rustle again. Where is it? Who is it? We are a tableful of panic. We all stand, frozen in apprehension as the noise stops and starts. I practically jump up on my chair as something leaps up onto Muriel’s beautiful table, tipping over several of the glasses, breaking one, dragging a cloth napkin with it as it makes its way to the middle and collapses next to one of Muriel’s impeccable challahs. Any early-meal tension is broken now, all of us hotly alert. Everyone shrinks back, somebody screams, though it’s hard to tell who over the din of the breaking tableware and my own heartbeat. We back as far away from the table as we can as the dark furry something comes into focus.
It’s a raccoon. An injured raccoon. There’s an injured raccoon in the sukkah who has just collapsed onto the challah. He has tracked dirt and blood across Muriel’s white tablecloth. We are now all crowded right by the sukkah doorway, my cousin and my parents and my sister and our rogue significant others, way too close to one another, ready for a holy collective escape, like some kind of reverse-Elijah-the-Prophet situation. But I try my feet and they don’t move.
“It’s a raccoon,” I say. No one has any doubt about what it is. We watch as the raccoon begins, boldly, to eat the giant loaf of braided bread, clinging to it with his sharp and twiny little paws. He twitches as he eats, collecting crumbs around him.
“It’s my challah,” Muriel says, eyes fixed.
The raccoon’s injuries are bad, even I know this. I am squeamish, but I can’t help but see that his entire left side is cut, an injury likely caused by some hungrier larger creature. His side is a bright wet red, and one of his legs looks broken. One of his ears is torn. I squint, having looked too much already, but feeling hypnotized. Katelyn is the opposite of squeamish, which is what I both love and can’t stand about her. She watches, unblinking. She is fearless, and for reasons I can never quite articulate, I am mad about it.
Like how on our second date, Katelyn showed up to the low-lit tin-ceilinged cocktail bar in a crisp white shirt and black velour hi-tops, bought me a cocktail and launched into the tale of her exploits cliff-jumping in Hawaii. She managed to work in how gracefully and fearlessly she’d jumped, and how she’d essentially almost died. Katelyn had a motorcycle. Katelyn had been mountain-climbing with insufficient gear. Katelyn had a way with fainting goats. I’d had to go home and look up what a fainting goat was. I am not fearless. Did I want to be more fearless or did I wish Katelyn was a little bit more afraid? I took a sip of my old-fashioned and, right then, Katelyn looked me in the eye, put her hand on top of mine and said Sarah, I’m going to want you to be my girlfriend. Cocky bastard, I remember thinking to myself, cheeks ablaze. But there was a third date, of course. And a fourth. And a dozen more. And here we are now, Sukkot.
Katelyn is the first one to edge back into the sukkah. She moves gingerly toward the raccoon. He continues eating Muriel’s homemade ritual bread. He seems unbothered by our collective gawking presence.
She turns back to face us. “He’s dying,” she says, matter-of-factly, like she’s a regular raccoon doctor.
“How do you know?” Jamie shoves his way forward to stand next to her. My sister met Jamie when they were both preparing to run in the same half-marathon. He is the only person I’ve ever met who is as fast and as ambitious as my sister. He does everything with a kind of determination that is a little unnerving, but he wears it well. His voice softens. “He looks friendly.”
“It’s just so clear to me,” Katelyn says like she’s giving a lecture on wounded animal health. “That he’s dying. He’s probably scared of us. But also, hungry.” She has a point, I have to admit, as I watch the raccoon continue to lift crumbs to his mouth.
“Well I wouldn’t complain if my last meal was an entire one of Muriel’s challahs either,” Jamie says. He inches closer, too, pushing back his shaggy hair and straightening his tie. He’s not religious like my family is, but he cleans up nice, and everyone’s taken to him since Rivki started dating him last spring. I am convinced that Mama and Muriel both have small and inappropriate crushes on him, even though they vehemently disagree with him most of the time.
Muriel blushes. “Well listen,” she says, pulling Katelyn and Jamie back by the scruffs of their necks like two animal pups. “We’re going to have to eat inside tonight.”
“You have more food inside?” I marvel at Muriel’s expert contingencies.
“Of course I do!” She sounds almost merry. Everything is starting to feel surreal. I try not to watch the raccoon eat. “There was talk of rain, so there’s more of everything inside.”
“It’s customary to eat inside even on Sukkot when the weather is terrible,” recites Papa, explaining mostly for Jamie and Katelyn’s sakes. “I would say that a rabid raccoon on the table is just as good a reason to eat inside.”
We troop into the dining room, where Muriel immediately starts setting the long table with her second set of china, not missing a beat. Many people mistake Muriel’s verve for cheer. She is always wearing some bold tunic or another, some opulent beaded earrings, some skirt in a color people say should be more of an accent color. She always has something to say, and she usually says it in an outdoor voice. If you were first meeting her, it might be hard to tell that she’d lost her husband to a car accident just three years ago. It’s less cheer, I think, and more a supreme sense of focus.
Once we’re seated around the indoor table, Papa makes the blessing on the wine. Because the challahs are outside, Muriel puts out two flatbreads instead, and Mama makes the blessing on those. Then, Muriel brings out the second chicken. “Fritz’s brother,” she says, soberly. My heart is still racing. I look at Rivki, whose face is flushed, like it is whenever she’s nervous. I bet her clavicle is pink, too. Ever since we were kids, Rivki gets pink when she’s nervous; both cheeks, and three splotches to her chest. I don’t blush, not like she does, which is surprising, because, if you can ignore the two and a half years between us, we’re basically twins. We have the same particular anxieties, the same thick, curly hair, the same weird potato-shaped nose, and sometimes we actually do finish one another’s sentences, so I know for a twin-like fact she feels as unsettled as I do by the presence of an injured animal in our sacred space.
As Jamie is pouring everyone wine, Katelyn squeezes my thigh under the table to get my attention. “I want to go check on the raccoon again. I want to try to see him up close,” she whispers. She is seated across from the glass doors. “I can just make out the edge of him. I can’t believe he’s still there, just eating.”
“Kate, no,” I practically hiss. “It’s dangerous!” I feel immediately like the sexist caricature of an overprotective mother in a fifties sitcom and desperately want to take it back. Katelyn doesn’t respond, but her mouth thins and she turns her attention to her fork, withdrawing her hand from my thigh.
But Katelyn is not the only one still thinking about the raccoon. “Don’t you think we should call animal control?” Jamie has a mouthful of chicken as he asks, and I can see Rivki elbowing him hard. Phone calls on Jewish holidays are a no. “Oh right,” he says, to no one in particular. “Well, wouldn’t this be considered an emergency?” He puts on his best old-timey newspaper man voice. “Rabid raccoon on the loose! Miscreant creature finally defeated! Dying sukkah bandit wipes out the challahs of entire neighborhood in final grand theft!” Even Papa laughs.
“I’ll call animal control,” says Katelyn, wiping her mouth with her napkin.
“No,” Papa says, and he has that stern Jewish law enforcement tone in his voice. I am mortified. Mortified that she offered and mortified that Papa just told my girlfriend what she wasn’t allowed to do on their second ever meeting. “That’s not allowed.”
“But I’m not…” I shoot Katelyn a look. Papa will not react positively to this reminder, I am certain.