Miriam Cohen

A GIRL OF A CERTAIN AGE

  

A GIRL IN YAEL'S OFFICE had been killed. It was all over the papers. It was all over the office, too, in whispers and the tsk-ing of tongues, the occasional, theatrical sob. The girl had known her killer. She’d been engaged to him. And he came at her with a knife. It was hard to know if he’d also raped her, because of the fiancé thing. Probably he had. That was how it usually went on TV.  His name was Daniel Ethan Milstein. When you killed someone, the newspapers called you by all of your names. He was sick, it turned out—a man didn’t do something like that if he were well. But Yael had met him, and he’d seemed fine. Which was what was pretty terrifying. The men Yael herself dated didn’t seem fine, but here she was, still alive.  Of all things, the girl who’d managed to get engaged was dead. (But she couldn’t really be called a girl, could she? Now that she was dead? When you were thirty-one and alive, you got to be a girl. A dead thirty-one-year-old, though: that was a woman.)

What was the message in all this?

She asked her roommate, Sophie, what it was she was supposed to do.

“Nothing,” Sophie said. “Nothing, and then maybe a card.”

She and Sophie were watching TV. They were always watching TV. As long as it was bad, they were watching it, but mostly they watched Law and Order: SVU. There were days when they left the house only to walk the dogs—Sophie’s cocker spaniel, Frank Sinatra, and Yael’s Yorkie, Bernadette Peters— and maybe pick up some frozen dinners from CVS.

“But can you believe it?” Yael said. “Of all things?”

“At least she got engaged. That’s better than us.”

It was better. Another terrible thing.

The men Yael and Sophie dated were like action figures. Instead of names, they came with titles: the hipster, the balding Jew, the enormously fat man. They all came from online. Yael went out more than Sophie did, but that was because Yael went out with anyone. So long as there was a pulse, ha-ha.

“We should come up with goals,” Yael said.

“We really should,” said Sophie.

Number one on the list: Find a boyfriend. Sophie already had a wedding guest list prepared. Yael, for her part, was going to skip having a wedding. This would be her revenge for years of being forced to be a guest at disgustingly lavish, self-congratulatory affairs. When her turn came, she’d get them with her modesty. Oh, the non-guests would say. Yael is so good. And they would wince at the memories of their bloated, frilly monster-cruise-ship weddings. She would just show them.

The other goals were boring: Get out more. Right? That was the ticket? Show your face somewhere, and it’ll just work out? Do yoga. Eat more kale. Sophie decided she’d start wearing deodorant—but only if it was really necessary. There were chemicals in it that could kill you, she explained, and also she was lazy. Sophie was getting a Ph.D. in literature, so it wasn’t like she lived in the real world where people cared how you smelled. Yael was a little jealous of that.

And then they came up with puns involving dogs and Law and Order: SVU: Petophilia; Pawpetrator; Ruffhousing; Sodogmy; Cocanine. Now all they needed was a plot.

They were also collaborating—this was more of a long-term project— on a musical about their lives. The musical also had dogs in it, but instead of sex crimes, there was no sex. The opening number involved the Yael and Sophie composite character waiting by the phone for a date. It was a duet between a single girl and her dog that went, so far: “I am alone in my house and scarf/ arf/ piz-za./ I sit here and chow/ bow-ow./ I try to seem aloof/ woof/ but all I want is a man who’s stark/ bark/ na-ked.” Their working title was A Girl of a Certain Age.

They were supposed to be writing a musical, but they were watching TV. They were eating French fries. The dogs were getting into everything. The girl on SVU was getting raped in an alleyway.

*

Yael couldn’t stop Googling. Some Googling, obviously, was acceptable, to be expected, part of the job. She worked for an online magazine geared toward Jewish women. Women, in this case, meant mothers. The magazine was called Modern Mama.  It was supposed to be a Yiddish reference—a Fiddler on the Roof kind of Mama, but Yael could just bet there were hoards of disappointed porn-seekers visiting the site each day. One day, Yael’s own mother liked to say, Yael too would be a woman. (But first a wife!) She just had to keep trying, maybe lower her standards a little, when did she become so picky? Yael wasn’t, her mother liked to point out, getting any younger. Her mother, who had abandoned Orthodox Judaism in Yael’s youth for this far worst thing: Cultural Judaism. She was just worried, her mother said; she just wanted Yael to be happy; just look at Yael’s cousin—now that was a nice life. Yael’s cousin, a cool five years younger, had it all: a rabbi husband, a baby, another on the way, and an in-process law degree she wouldn’t use.

At Modern Mama, Yael wrote articles with titles like “Behind Every Great Man…Stands his Mother”; “Spice up Your Matzo Balls”; “You Call This a Kitchen?!”. She wrote an advice column and answered questions about how long was too long when it came to breast-feeding. (The answer: never! Do it until the Bar/ Bat Mitzvah, for all she cared. Do it until the Chupah. Some of the men she dated probably went straight home and suckled at their mothers’ teats as soon as she was done with them.) She was working there ironically, she told herself and also anyone who asked what it was that she did. She’d started at the magazine straight out of college, and she found working there was similar to a having a heroin addiction; it was a hard thing to come back from.

Also, there was something about the idea of working for gentiles that felt a little unsettling. Gentiles were fine, but there was just something suspect about them, like an off-brand of cottage cheese you might as well not try. And some of them didn’t get circumcised. Plus—the Holocaust, right? Those were jokes you couldn’t make in a gentile place of work. You couldn’t even call it that. It would just be called a place of work, period.

But Yael wasn’t Googling brisket recipes or fact-checking the dubious gynecological advice she was offering to Concerned in Crown Heights.

She was Googling Daniel Ethan Milstein. The articles were all speculative. She couldn’t find any kind of consensus. It was like a choose-your-own adventure story, a Mad Libs fill-in-the-blank: Schizophrenia, sociopathy, a particularly nasty strain of Bipolar I. It was unclear, from the articles, whether or not the girl from Yael’s office had known about any of this. The articles didn’t really talk about her.

Yael had met him just the once. The girl, Libby Silberstein, brought him to Modern Mama’s Hanukah party. Yael, for want of an actual date, brought Sophie.

“What are you two, lesbians?” the now-dead girl asked.

She’d been so smug, and now she was dead. It didn’t serve her right. Of course not. No one deserved to die, and definitely not the way she had, hacked to death in her own apartment at the hands of her once-gentle fiancé. He had dismembered her. That was a fact omitted from the email HR had sent around.

But he was pleasant at the party; he passed her a plate of latkes, and she had the thought—that girl doesn’t deserve him. Libby Silberstein had been something of a cunt. A terrible thing to say, now that she was dead. Now that she was dead, obviously, she was the best person who had ever lived. The world was so achingly lucky to have had her in it; she had touched so many lives; if there was anyone in the running to replace God, you can bet it had been her.

“Not lesbians,” Yael said. “Just codependent.”

“Not that there’d be anything wrong with that,” Libby said, and Yael felt like an asshole for not being a lesbian. She felt like she’d been caught voting Republican, with a secret rifle locker at home.

Sophie, for her part, was blotting out the oil on a latke.

Yael tried now to remember what Daniel Ethan Milstein had said. Had he laughed? Coughed into his fist and looked away? Put his hand on the small of Libby Silberstein’s back? Wormed the hand down to her butt? Surely there must have been some sign of what was to come, even if it had seemed hidden at the time. But all she could remember was Libby Silberstein’s stupid engagement ring, the way it winked in the light when Libby flipped her glossy, keratine-straightened hair over her shoulder.

The main thing that came out of the party was an idea for a new number in the musical, about pussies. The cat kind, but with the option of a pun to read into. My pussy is alone/ by the telephone, that kind of thing. They never got very far with that song, probably because it didn’t feature any dogs.

*

On Law and Order: SVU, another girl was getting raped. This time, it was in a college dorm room. She was passed out drunk, and the man who was raping her was blond and handsome; he wore a school ring, and his name was Chad. It was a story ripped from the headlines.

*

The goals—the showing of their faces, the yoga, in Sophie’s case, the deodorant— were hard to keep up. The dog-run was probably Yael and Sophie’s most social activity. They aimed for once a day. For Frank Sinatra, it was all about the squirrels. He’d sit on the bench watching them like it was TV. Sometimes, he’d try to go after them with a slow lion’s prowl, as if that was fooling anyone. The squirrels were jerks, though. They’d dance around the edge of the fence, racing off at the last second, leaving Frank Sinatra to howl out his despair at the futility of it all.

Today was a howling day.

Scarecrow Lady staggered over with a scowl. “Someone,” she said to the air above their heads, “needs to get that dog under control.”

Like the dates, the people at the dog-run also were without real names. Scarecrow Lady was either anorexic or had a syndrome. Whatever it was, she was terrifying, and she never shared her tennis balls. She had elbows pointy enough to take an eye out.

They other regulars were: the weird man; the perfect couple; George Clooney. The only ones with real names were the dogs. The weird man’s dog was Isabella; the perfect couple had Leo—a cocker spaniel who as a puppy had seemed cuter than Frank Sinatra, but now that he was grown, had proven unfortunate. Scarecrow Lady’s dogs were Snowflake and Snowball, which was no surprise. Whatever sense of humor or originality she might have had in her life, it was sucked out of her now. That was a woman to avoid becoming. George Clooney’s dog was Gatsby, also no surprise: George Clooney was perfect. You didn’t even need to look at his left hand to know he was married; Gatsby was a golden retriever. If a man had a golden retriever, you could bet he was married, almost definitely with children. Small dogs on a man meant gay, married or in a serious relationship. Pitt bulls were what you were going to get if you were looking for a single, straight man. A hipster might have a dog missing a leg or an eye.

The hipster Yael had gone out with had the trifecta: a pit bull without eyes who was also dead. She was the sweetest dog in the world, he told her—she had been, anyway. It made Yael vomit in her mouth even to remember. The guy, more than the dog. He had a garden on his roof, he’d told her. He grew life-affirming plants because the city air was too toxic for vegetables. He was also making a DIY record. Records had a purer sound, he explained. That was a man who wouldn’t raise a hand to a woman, right? But that was exactly what everyone would say about him if he did. That was basically every episode of Law and Order: SVU. If you were playing a neighbor on SVU, that was your line. That was what all the articles were saying about Daniel Ethan Milstein.

Bernadette Peters hopped up on the bench, growling at the other dogs from the safety of her perch. She was neurotic and antisocial. It would be hard for her not to be, with Yael as her main role model. But she would never hurt another dog. She couldn’t, was the thing. She was too small.

*

 The setting is a single girl’s apartment. She lies on the couch, a small dog at her feet. The glow from the TV illuminates her face. There’s a knock at the door. She leaps into a pirouette to answer the door.

It’s her date, arriving with slicked-back hair and flowers. “My darling,” he says. “I also have chocolate.”

There’s a waltz.

The girl sings, “He’s brought me gifts, kisses/ I’ll be his Mrs.” Instead of a microphone, she sings into a hairbrush. “Here’s to life!/ I’ll be a wife/ goodbye to strife.”

And then he unhinges her limbs, one by one.

It made no sense.

*

If anyone was going to kill you, it would be the substitute dog-walker. That was a headline that made sense—“Dog-Walker of Doom.” It was the perfect set-up for a killer: keys to an apartment, dogs so domesticated they had winter parkas, guileless girls. Still, Yael and Sophie said sure, thanks, of course when their regular dog-walker, Annie, said she’d be going on vacation and was leaving them in the capable hands of Paul.

Annie was something of an artisanal dog-walker; she left them progress reports on each dog in separate, labeled notebooks. She was disgustingly professional. The only mistake they’d caught her in, the singular time she’d revealed herself as human, was when she’d accidently left a big straw hat in their apartment. She’d texted: Did I leave a big straw hat in your apartment? It was maddening. Couldn’t she at least clog a toilet or something, just once?

Paul’s qualifications were both his parents were vets. Why he had the flexibility in his schedule to be a substitute dog-walker was not addressed. The two of them, Annie and Paul, hovered in the doorway, crouched to dog-level. They looked like they were part of an indie rock group. Even though it was the summer, Annie was wearing ripped tights, boots and a flowing white dress. He was wearing a tee-shirt with a silk-screened slice of pizza on it, a fringed denim vest, and elf shoes.

Because Paul and Annie wouldn’t sit at the table and accept tap water in mismatched, chipped mugs like normal guests, Yael and Sophie hovered in the doorway also.

“So, you’ve walked dogs before?” Yael said.

“My parents are vets,” said Paul. “Both of them.”

It wasn’t an issue to press.

Yael handed over the keys. Sure, stranger, come up to the apartment when I’m not there. Take the dogs, bring them back. Leave the jewelry. I trust you. And the terrible thing was, after everything, she did trust him. Of course he wouldn’t kill her. That kind of thing would never happen in real life. Not to her.

“But a little raping, right? That wouldn’t be so bad,” Sophie said, after Paul and Annie left. “Sometimes a girl just needs to get herself a little raped.”

“Girls Just Wanna Get Raped,” Yael said. “We should put it in the musical.”

*

Yael rarely pitched article ideas. She took what she got and said, Super! I’ve always actually wondered about the safety of car seats. Her editor, who liked to call himself her office dad, was chronically disappointed in her. He valued her and her “can do” attitude, but she seemed unhappy, he told her almost weekly. He wanted her to be happy.

So when she asked him if he might be interested in hearing her pitch, he all but hugged her. One problem he had was getting too close.

Her pitch was a human-interest story on Daniel Ethan Milstein. She would speak to his mother.

Her editor again looked dangerously close to hugging her. “Grief is very hard,” he said.

He loved her initiative—that was really, really great, and good for her; keep it up— but maybe she should keep thinking. It took some imagination on her part, yes, he understood, because she was still single, so, obviously, childless, but maybe she could call up a married friend, pick her brain a little. See if there were any mommy trends that might interest Yael. Those he would love to hear her pitch.

In the meantime, how about if he called in a grief counselor? How would that sound? He knew someone personally, who was renowned, and a real mensch.

She understood his hesitancy, she said. But—and here she leaned forward, close enough to smell his lox breath, “What would happen if people didn’t write about the Holocaust? The deaths of six million. Even with the living testimonies, we have deniers.” She looked solemnly at her hands. “My grandmother was in Auschwitz,” she lied.

He gave her his blessing.

*

Finding Daniel Ethan Milstein’s mother was nothing. All Yael had to do was Google around until she found out her name, and, bam, there was an address, a phone number, an email, she could take her pick. She chose the address.

She showed up right at Daniel Ethan Milstein’s mother’s doorstep like a Mormon. Getting turned away was not a risk she could take. She had to get to the bottom of it, figure out what made him different from everyone else—from all the guys who wouldn’t hack you to bits.

The house had a wrap-around porch, a mown lawn, a garden out front with burst-open flowers in the bright colors of bridesmaid dresses. There were three cars in the driveway, all sparkling. On SVU, this would all add up to: Rich, WASP. There wasn’t much room for nuance on SVU; if you were a Jew on SVU, you were a lecherous Hassid with a thick, wrong accent and Shirley Temple side curls.

Yael slammed her knuckles against the door. She liked the sound it made. Much more satisfying than the dainty ringing of a bell.

She was writing an article, she said when the killer’s mother answered the door. The tone would be sympathetic. She was from Modern Mama. “Libby’s—”

“Yes,” the killer’s mother said. “Of course. Libby’s magazine.”

She looked right into Yael’s eyes, said Libby’s name like it was ordinary.

“Call me Gloria,” she said. She seemed relieved, as if she’d been waiting for Yael to show up.  She opened the door all the way and let Yael in.

Everything inside the house was arranged just exactly so: a cluster of tasseled throw pillows on the sofa fanned like an open deck of cards; tiny, purposeless vases lining a windowsill. It was like walking into a page in a magazine. It seemed like the kind of house where you wouldn’t be allowed to wear shoes, but the killer’s mother didn’t say anything to Yael, and it wasn’t like Yael was going to volunteer to walk around in socks. But she felt a little awful. She knew she was surely tracking dirt into the house.

The killer’s mother didn’t offer Yael cookies or a drink or anything. She just started talking. She started talking so immediately, so breathlessly, it was impossible to turn on the tape recorder. It would be too awkward.

“I loved Libby. She was like a daughter. And that’s rare, to get along so well. He loved her. He’s so sorry. You can’t imagine. He wants to talk to a reporter, he asked me, he said, ‘Mom, I want to talk to a reporter.’ To explain his side of the story, how much he loved her.”

Yael didn’t want to hear that story.

“There’s a culture of shame in our country when it comes to mental illness,” Yael said, but too quickly. It came out like one word: There’s-a-culture-of-shame-in-our-country-when-it comes-to-mental-illness. It was the kind of awkward exposition that never really worked on SVU. “There must have been…?”

“Schizophrenia? That’s what I’m reading on the Internet.”

“Voices,” Yael said. She nodded sagely.

“It wasn’t schizophrenia. That’s something I would’ve known about, don’t you think? It was something, but I don’t know what he was thinking, because it wasn’t him. He doesn’t know what he was thinking. That’s what he says to me, ‘Mom, I don’t know what I was thinking.’”

She leaned forward, touched Yael’s arm. This move was an old standby of the men she dated. They’d say her name, touch her arm, think that meant they were entitled now to sex.

“Does that make sense?” the killer’s mother asked. “Have you ever had a moment, you know, where you just lost it?”

As a child—as a college student, actually, terribly, when physical fighting should’ve gone the way of Barbies—Yael had come very close to strangling her mother. She couldn’t remember what the fight was about, but she did remember how her mother had become bug-eyed, her mouth opening in a little O, the tendons in neck as delicate as fish bones, as easily crushable. And Yael’s hand felt enormous. She’d felt so powerful, she had to stop right then. She had to stop because she’d wanted to continue.

Yael put on her most sympathetic smile. It could also double as a wince. “I’m sure,” she said, “there must be people out there who have.”

On her way out, she found some neighbors who said just what they should: We would never have imagined! He’s the last person we would have thought! They rattled off their lines so well, they might have come from SVU—really. She could’ve sworn she’d heard them before.

*

 Yael wasn’t going to write the article. She got as far as the headline—“A Killer in Their Midst” by Yael Berman, and then she couldn’t keep going. The TV was on, an SVU rerun playing in the background like spa music. Sophie was also working. She was writing a paper called “Who’s Afraid of Crying Woolf”. Sophie’s paper wasn’t about Virginia Woolf, Edward Albee or the Aesop’s fable. She just needed to figure that part out, she explained. It was the final piece of the puzzle.

Yael thought it best not to touch that.

What they both needed, Yael said, was a break. They’d been working long enough. It was time to focus on the musical. The hacking-to-bits scene, in particular, needed some fleshing out.

Sophie was on board immediately. “It could turn into a duet,” she said.

On the TV, a rogue detective was punching a tattooed perp.

“Please don’t kill me,” the girl would sing. And he’d harmonize with her, “kill me,” there’d be a tender, hopeful twilling of a flute, knife raised sensually to her neck, and then, in a booming baritone: “But that would give me nothing but glee/ because I’m cra-zy.” There could be a back-up chorus: “Hack, hack, hack/ Alack.” Dancers with hands slicing at their throats, screeching violins, a frenzied ripple of piano.

They gave the killer’s mother a few lines of dialogue. She wouldn’t be in the room, obviously. But it would be a voice over, or whatever that was called in a musical. There would be a long silence, long enough for the audience to begin to fidget, and then: “I wouldn’t want to blame the victim.” (Stage direction: a big sigh.) “They were together a long time. There were signs, of course. But she was a single girl of a certain age.”

There. That was a story that made sense. Now all they had to do was throw in a couple of dogs. That was a recipe even the most valium-upped of her Modern Mama readers could follow: just add dogs. Sophie had the idea to call the song “The Grim Raper.”


MIRIAM COHEN has published work in The Black Warrior Review, StoryQuarterly, West Branch, Wired, Cream City Review, The Florida Review, DIAGRAM, Cimarron Review, The Collagist and Carve. She was the 2012-13 recipient of the Carol Houck Smith Fiction fellowship at the Wisconsin Institute for Creative Writing, and received her MFA from Sarah Lawrence College.


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