Twisted Sister

by James A. Avitabile

Miriam and I were classmates in the sixth grade at P.S. 45. She was petite in frame and delicate in mind, a serious girl and as fragile as a porcelain doll. She needed someone to watch over her. I took on that responsibility. Except for me, she stayed apart from most of our classmates.

She talked in whispers as if everything she said was a secret. Whenever she spoke, teeny bubbles dribbled out of her mouth with every word. Maybe no one else noticed but I did. Her skin was like white tissue paper. I could see tiny veins under her eyes and on her cheeks that looked like roadways on a map. They weren’t major highways, more like country roads.

She wore expensive clothes. She came from money, but money never got in our way. Miriam wasn’t sloppy and she wasn’t groomed to perfection either. She was neatly disheveled. Her dresses must have come from Garber Brothers or Lobel’s where people who had money didn’t have to wait for a sale to purchase anything like my mother had to.  But my mother never dressed me poorly. Every day I wore a freshly washed and neatly ironed shirt and carefully pressed pants. When it came to cleanliness and clothes my mother made sure I floated in a sea of Ivory soap.

My classmates and I were a fusion of all kinds of vegetables in a slow cooking stew. We were Irish, Poles, Italians, Jews and some blacks that blended together. If intolerance and bigotry existed, it stayed at home in a different pot.

Miriam and I sat next to each other at lunch. On Wednesdays, she could see a mood change in me. I became gloomy. On that day, lunch was like the Last Supper. I played with my food; I sagged and sulked. I wanted the day to stop right there, but that wasn’t going to be. Wednesday was released-time day. I would be shuttled by bus to Sacred Heart School and handed over to the nuns to learn about God’s love for us and what we had to do to attain His love. And if we didn’t get it they’d beat it into us with whatever they had in their hands. They tried to beat love into us when they didn’t know what love was. Miriam knew how I felt about Wednesday afternoons. As I gathered my books she would look at me and whisper, “I hope it goes fast for you today.” I hated the two hours I had to face those twisted sisters with their ugly warts. Time dragged on as if the hands of the clock had weights on them. Even when that Wednesday finally came to an end, the thought of next Wednesday loomed.

I was so happy when Thursday morning came and I returned to my delicious stew of public school. One morning, Miriam bubbled: “I’m making my bat mitzvah in two weeks. Would you like to come to the ceremony? It’ll be at Temple Emanuel on Post Avenue. After the ceremony, they’ll be a reception with all kinds of food. I’ve even invited some of our classmates.”

Miriam had come to my confirmation party in my backyard on a warm
and sunny Saturday in May. I had invited many of my classmates and most of them had come, even Mr. Dizard, my homeroom teacher, was there. Now it was Miriam’s turn to be confirmed and recognized as an adult by God. I told my mother about Miriam’s invitation, not because it was a question of whether I could go or not but because it was about a gift.

“What do you think you would like to get for Miriam?”

“A necklace, Mom, a necklace with little pink beads. That’s her favorite color. I saw a necklace in Sonia Pitt’s window that Miriam would like. It’s pink beads with little white pearls on a silver chain.”

“How much is it? Could you see the price tag?”

“Ten dollars, Mom. It’s not cheap but she gave me those silver cuff links and those weren’t cheap either. I think I should get it before someone else buys it.”

Sonia Pitt and her sister were spinsters. They lived down the block from us on Pelton Avenue. They had a shop at the corner of Davis, a block away from my father’s hat cleaning store. Many mornings I would see the neatly dressed pair—one tall, the other shorter by a foot— walk smilingly to their shop. The shop was really a hair salon, but as you entered there were showcases of jewelry. While customers waited for one of the beauticians to take them, they could browse the showcases. The sisters knew how to dress the window and lure you with pretty jewelry. They had quiet taste, like Miriam’s.  The taller Sonia had a natural talent for wrapping a gift in such an inviting way that I was certain that Miriam would want to open it first. I watched Miss Pitt as she selected a paper that hinted at what the color Miriam’s gift might be. She carefully dressed it as if it were a little girl.

The sun shone gloriously the day Miriam came of age as a Jew. She recited in Hebrew certain religious passages. I could barely hear her. The rabbi had a distinct British accent that seemed very strange to me. Couldn’t they have found an American? Many rabbis had come to my father’s shop to have their hats cleaned. This was the first time I heard a rabbi with a British accent.

Miriam glowed and bubbled. Her eyes showed how happy she was. Like the custom at an Italian wedding, she’d go around to each of the tables and accept the gifts offered to her and place them in a very large white silk purse. She received many envelopes. I was one of the few ‘gift’ givers. I kissed her on the cheek.

“Thank you James for coming and thank you for your gift. It’s so beautifully wrapped. I can’t wait to open it when I get home.”

The following Wednesday came too soon. The paddy wagon picked us up and off we were carted to have love beaten into us. As we settled into our assigned desks, Sister Judith with her deeply creased forehead and strands of silver gray hair escaping from beneath her wimple asked, “Did anyone do something special since last week?”

I raised my hand. “Yes, James, what special thing did you do?”

“I attended my friend Miriam’s bat mitzvah last Saturday at Temple Emanuel. They gave me a paper yarmulke to wear on my head.”

The deep crease on her forehead turned beet red; so did her whole face. Like an overheated pressure cooker she exploded. “You have committed a mortal sin! You have broken God’s first commandment, you heathen. ‘I am the Lord thy God. Thou shalt have no other gods before Me.’ Get out of my sight. Go tell the Monsignor that you worshipped the God of the Jews who is a false god.”

I hunched over and buried my head into my shoulders to convey a visual expression that I was truly sorry for worshipping a false idol. I wasn’t sorry at all. I felt I had done something good. I obeyed her and walked to the rectory where the Monsignor lived. I rang the bell. The housekeeper opened the door. I asked if I could see him. She told me he was at St. Vincent’s Hospital giving last rites to a dying parishioner. “Thank you, I’ll come back another time.”

I descended the three brick steps to the cement walkway. I couldn’t go back to class right away. I needed more time. I went to a nearby candy store that had an old fashioned soda fountain. “Egg Cream, please.” I sipped and slurped it for as long as I could. I wiped my mouth and drank some water to wash away any scent of sweet. I returned reluctantly to my designated cellblock and Sister Judith, feigning remorse. “What did Monsignor say to you?”

“He took me into his office and asked me to make a good confession
to him. I did.”

She couldn’t ask me too much more. Confession is a private thing. There’s no sharing. I could see in her sadistic eyes that she imagined the worst and that the Monsignor became so enraged that he might have punched or slapped me for worshipping a false god. When I went to public school the next day, Miriam greeted me with a beaming smile. She was wearing my necklace.

“I really love it James! Thank you so much.”

Thank you, Carmen for helping me stay focused in finding my voice and telling my story and feeling it. ‘Twisted Sister’ sends her regards.