How This Night Is Different

Elisa Albert

After half-heartedly helping her mother clean, sweep, launder, and dust ritually with a feather and a candle borrowed from the emergency earthquake kit, Joanna congregated with her parents on the patio. They stood around a mop bucket and beamed at her.
        “JoJo,” her father said, the same way he’d said it when she was eight. “Show us what you found.”
        Joanna held up the hametz: a quartered piece of white bread that Ron had “hidden” for her to “find” (smack in the middle of the dining room table, on top of the microwave, on top of the washing machine, and by the kitchen sink, respectively). He nodded approvingly and flipped through the Haggadah for the appropriate blessing. He read it first in Hebrew and then in English.
        “Any leaven in my possession, which I have not seen or removed, shall be as if it does not exist, and as the dust of earth.” To this last part, the dust of the earth, Ron added a sinister and dramatic flourish, so it sounded almost as if he was promising, when he found you, to suck your blood.
        The quartered bread sat soggy and rejected in Joanna’s sweaty open palm. On the inside of her left forearm the tattooed words why and not unfolded in small blue-black Times New Roman italics, followed by an outsized question mark. The words had been meaningful to her when she’d gotten them at twenty-three, but had long since ceased to mean whatever they had meant, and had had no choice, then, but to assume new meaning, meanings, as she grew ever older looking at them every day. She saw her mother try not to stare. Usually Joanna made a point of long sleeves in the presence of the ‘rents, to spare them all the torment.
        “An Orthodox guy in Pico-Robertson accidentally set himself on fire doing this last year,” Joanna informed them. Then she dropped the bread into the bucket and Marilyn lit a match. For a little while they watched the flame do its worst, until the stench of burnt toast forced them back inside. The bucket remained out on the patio all day, blackened toast quarters disintegrated at the bottom.
        Joanna was home for the sederot so, of course, the task of setting the table fell to her. Wasn’t it a given for adult children to fall immediately back into their pre-ordained roles within the family upon returning home? And look at that: “home”! Still, forever, she found herself referring to her parents’ house—a place she’d left decisively at seventeen—as home.
        Once upon a time there had been no greater pleasure than in her imagined grown-up responsibility of making the table look pretty, but she was a ripe thirty-one now, a ways away from eleven. And as she unpacked her Grandma Bess' ancient, precious Passover china from its musty foam crate, she smiled at the memory of her mother's sly manipulation: it's your job to make the table look pretty, JoJo! Once upon a time she had relished the assignment. She would fuss about the precise angle and distance of the wine glass from plate and knife, feel betrayed when guests actually sat down to eat, messed up her perfect settings, ringed the crystal with lipstick.
        After a couple of rocky periods in her twenties (a few particularly bad breakups, a pinch of credit card debt, unceremonious abandonment of a master’s in painting, enforced leaving—okay, so she was fucking her boss—of a plum graphic design job, bridges thoroughly charred), Joanna seemed now to have her “shit” more or less “together,” as they say, and her proficiency in making the table Look Pretty seemed proof enough. She set each plate so that the stem of its big centered red poppy extended downward. This, she recalled from Marilyn’s formative instruction, was an important detail: gravity applied in the aesthetic of fine china. She cared considerably less these days about place setting precision, but she would not betray the girl she had been. Evenly spaced flatware was the other crucial thing.
        When the foam china crate was empty, though, and there were only eleven delicate red poppies flowering within thick navy-blue borders ringed with gold leaf evenly spaced around the table, Joanna felt defeated. The twelfth plate, she fully recalled, had been broken during a raucous party she had hosted in the eleventh grade. Josh Weinstein, her first love, had raided the pantry looking for snacks. Joanna had been completely, blessedly stoned, and, needless to say, pretty hungry herself, so she’d just let out a spacey giggle when Josh emerged onto the patio with a Grandma Bess Passover plate instead, palming the red poppy like an affected French waiter. “Zees ees niiiice,” he’d said, making ridiculous faces at Joanna. (They’d dated all through high school and into college, but he’d ended up being a total fucker; cheated on her for months, left her at the end of freshman year with a parting gift of genital warts.)
        Jay Taubman, from a couple dozen feet away, had clapped his gigantic pubescent paws and held them out—“Dude! Right here!”—and Josh had tossed the blue-rimmed artifact like a frisbee. It had sailed for what seemed like hours, spinning gracefully through the air toward Jay.
        “Wait,” Joanna had said weakly. “Don’t.” But then there had been a shatter, the onomatopoeic pleasure of which reverberated sharply in the ganja-tinged pit of her stomach. She remembered having giggled, in spite of herself. Crash! Tee hee.
         “Mom,” she said, slouching into the kitchen, “Grandma Bess’ Passover china only has eleven settings.”
        “Where’s the twelfth?” Marilyn, wrist-deep in a bowl of nuts and cinnamon and finely chopped apples for charoset, raised an eyebrow.
        Joanna shrugged, looked at the floor. “I have no idea.” Usually they went to Aunt Barbi and Uncle Larry’s for Passover.
        “So just use a plate from another set,” Marilyn said, furiously mixing. “The pink flowers one. Honestly, Joanna. Things break. It’s not the end of the world.”
“Who said anything about it breaking?” Joanna’s voice veered dangerously into the realm of shrill. She had expected her mother to be more upset. Grandma Bess had died before Joanna’s birth—had not lived to see her first grandchild—and Joanna always felt it was a huge deal when things broke. The end of the world, even. Marilyn kept on mixing. “Why would I have any idea what happened to the freaking plate?” Marilyn said nothing. “What the hell? I don’t even live here. Jesus.”
        Joanna’s emotional susceptibility was aggravated by the raw, itchy, extraordinarily uncomfortable state of her genitalia: a yeast infection, for sure, noticed the day before in its earliest stages and blossomed to full, awful effect today. It was driving her insane; she wanted to rip into her vagina with an axe, to tear it apart and revel in the ecstasy of the itch relieved. She had a Problem in her Pants, as the girls in her co-op in college used to say. There were proliferate Problems in their Pants back in the day: UTIs, various and sundry STDs, yeast. “Curse the motherfucking Pill,” her friend Claire would moan, knocking back shots of not-from-concentrate cranberry juice at the kitchen table. “Sexual liberation comes with a hefty price-tag indeed, ladies.”
        “That china was Grandma’s dowry when she married your Grandpa Jack,” Marilyn said after a moment, like amusing, disconnected trivia. Grandpa Jack was, naturally, even longer gone than his blushing bride. There was a picture of them, fingers intertwined, sepia cheeks pressed delightedly together, dressed to the nines, about to leave on their honeymoon, front and center on top of the baby grand in the living room. It was as disquieting an image as any flayed and emaciated Catholic Jesus-on-the-cross: they had died for Joanna’s sins.
        Marilyn briefly consulted her recipe, pulled nutmeg off the spice rack, and added two decisive shakes to the bowl. Charoset was Joanna’s favorite part of Passover, by far. More even than the little individual dipping bowls of saltwater meant to approximate tears.
        “I’m sorry Mom!” she said suddenly, attempting, in an off-center hug, to bury her face in Marilyn’s shoulder. “I’m so sorry!” It seemed to Joanna that the missing twelfth plate should somehow exacerbate her mother’s old mother-loss wound, twist and wring her psyche and dredge up all the pain losing one’s mother—being, in fact, an orphan—might entail. Joanna couldn’t imagine it: God dead. Marilyn gave her a friendly little shove.
        “Would you please spare us the drama and finish setting the table? Fifty people are going to be here in a half-hour and you. Are. Not. Helping. Me.” This was punctuated by the shaking of her hands over the mixing bowl, as though the bits of spiced apples and nuts sticking to her fingers were themselves somehow being selfish. When she was expecting company, Marilyn tended toward hyperbole and (dare we?) hysteria. The Renaissance painters had missed a sprawling goldmine when they’d neglected to portray the Martyrdom of the Put Upon Passover Seder Hostess. There were exactly twelve people coming: Aunt Barbi and the axis of asshole (Uncle Larry and cousins Kevin and Jason), sad-sack still-single Uncle Steve, Aunt Jackie and her silent, obese boyfriend Bob, studying-for-about-six-years-now-to-become-a-beautician cousin Stacey. Joanna, Marilyn, and Ron. And Harris. Joanna’s boyfriend of almost a year. A non-Jew. (“I don’t like to be defined by what I’m not,” he would mock-bristle at that. “I’m also a non-midget. A non-Hispanic. A non-female.” “And a non-nonagenarian,” Joanna would point out, because, like her, Harris had a dumb sense of humor. “Ha,” he’d respond. “You said ‘non-nonagenarian.’” Then they would talk about other things.)
        So Joanna reluctantly got out a plate from the grotesque second-tier Passover set—ceramic yellow with proliferate pink daisies. It looked obscene, a monstrosity among all of Grandma Bess’ serene, expensive red poppies. Like a hooker at high tea. She set it at her own place, disgusted by the awful aesthetic of it, then allowed herself a quick, feral itching interlude, hand down the waist of her jeans, facing the corner of the dining room, hunched over like a pervert jerking off in public. The reprieve was borderline orgasmic—she saw rainbows, she saw stars—with a nice little thread of pain sliced through like gold leaf. She let out a small involuntary sigh and examined her fingers: white, pasty, not altogether too heinous-smelling, considering.
        In the kitchen, Marilyn was racing around like Julia Child on crack.
        “All right,” Joanna told her. “The table is set. Can I be excused?” Instantly she regretted the sarcasm in her voice. Marilyn made a big show of rinsing her hands off and drying them on a dishtowel, which she then folded decisively in quarters and set down next to the sink. Joanna leaned against the counter, arms crossed, directly in her mother’s path. “I really hope you’re not expecting me to say the Four Questions, because I’m fucking thirty-one years old and it’s not happening.”
        “I know how old you are.” This with a defeated tone, in which Joanna could hear each and every one of her mother’s many harbored disappointments: an only child, unmarried, dating a goy, spectacularly unaccomplished in her chosen craft, living far away, tattooed, still accepting the occasional bailout check from Daddy. The list went on. Breaker of plates, eschewer of inter-generational cultural responsibility, what else?
        “Good,” Joanna replied, like a nine-year-old. She had expected more of a fight, and didn’t know what to do with her reserve of belligerence. Her crotch burned.
        “Maybe your friend Harris can do it,” said Marilyn. “That would be appropriate, don’t you think?” At which the doorbell rang.
        “Elijah!” Ron yelled from the den, where he was doing roughly ten times the necessary seder-prep: cutting and pasting readings from eight different Haggadot, making place-cards (which he would any minute ask Joanna to illustrate “because you’re the talented artist, JoJo”), assigning roles in the skit wherein Moses asks Pharaoh to pretty please Let [His] People Go. Sweet Ron got such immense pleasure from the claim that anyone at the door on Passover was, in fact, Elijah. It never got old. For the rest of the evening, whenever the doorbell rang, he would invariably pause, straight-faced, dopey, joyful, before making the joke anew.
        “I expect you to wear long sleeves to the table, Joanna,” Marilyn said, her parting shot. “Please don’t make everyone uncomfortable.”
        “Yeah, sure, why not?”
        Joanna opened the front door, and Harris—oh, Harris!—held out the urgently requested box of Monistat 7 and a pretty bunch of yellow tulips. “Hell-o,” he said too brightly, doing a little bow like they were meeting for the first time. Behind him the afternoon was ending, and the light was prismatic and warm, like in a well-taken photograph on specifically appropriated film. Joanna felt a little joy hiccup bubble up the center of her chest. Her very own bass-and-drums-playing borderline hippie college football champion. The Gentle Giant, Joanna’s friends called him. He had gifted her with a painstakingly compiled homemade CD mix on their second date, full of all sorts of hidden, funny references to things they had talked about on their first, some of which she was still decoding. He was perfect in bed: ravenous, unshockable, but not the slightest bit sleazy. Did such men really exist?
        “Why, thank you,” she said, taking the tulips and the Monistat (which effected, downstairs, an anticipatory wave of relief) with a ladylike curtsy.
        He raked a hand through his hair (sand-colored, shaggy, lovely) and stepped over the threshold. “Do I look okay?” Brown Hush Puppies, khakis, an un-tucked periwinkle blue shirt unbuttoned to reveal the white t-shirt underneath. Joanna, at five-ten, came up to his chest, which was, for a tall girl, a sexual intoxicant like no other. He could have worn Italian slides and Lycra, it didn’t matter. She could not have been more attracted to him. It was like a sickness.
        “Perfect,” she told him. “Beautiful. Don’t be nervous.”
        “Who’s nervous?” He shrugged, pretended to look over his shoulder, wrapped his arms around her. When he kissed her she felt that thing; that thing she might have identified as love, as happiness, had she any concrete previous experience with either to which she could yoke it.
        After Josh “The Warthog” Weinstein, there had been a string of schmucks, Nice Jewish Narcissists all. All these guys were the same: lionized beyond repair by doltish, worshipful mothers, interested ultimately in doltish, worshipful girlfriends-cum-wives. These boys invariably rejected the hell out of her (being, as she was, neither doltish nor particularly worshipful), and in return, she developed a steaming, pulsating, wholly unwieldy contempt for the whole summer-camp-whoring lot of them. Joanna had shed actual tears in a therapists’ office when she was twenty-eight, after yet another disastrous go at homo-ethnic dating. I’m an anti-Semite, she’d sobbed in response to the standard “Why are you here?” I hate Jews. The therapist had recommended both Women Who Love Too Much and Portnoy’s Complaint and sent Joanna on her way.
        Harris had been a regular at The Near Miss, Joanna’s coffee shop in Berkeley. She worked afternoons to closing. He ran a recording studio nearby, she found out later, and would stumble in at noon, read the paper, go to work at two or three.
        “Is he Jewish?” naturally, Marilyn’s first question.
        “From one of the lost tribes, I think,” Joanna had replied. “Kind of like a Jew for Jesus, but minus the Jew part.”
        “Oh, Joanna.” Marilyn cared obsessively about Jewish boyfriends (and husbands and grandkiddies, natch); Joanna cared about unbroken, inherited china. Two sides of the same coin, it did not escape Joanna’s perception, but they stared at each other in willful mutual incomprehension nonetheless. “Bess is turning over in her grave.” Grandma of the Shattered Plate: patron Jew of guilt and shame.
        “How can she dislike me when she doesn’t even know me?” Harris would ask, genuinely hurt and confused.
        “Nobody dislikes you,” Joanna would explain. “Jews are just a little defensive about blood-thinning. It’s just been a rough couple thousand years.” His family treated Joanna with a healthy mixture of skepticism (borne of an inkling that there existed sentiment in Joanna’s family that Harris was somehow not good enough for her) and welcoming openness, manifested in their eagerness to add a red-papered box with her name on it to the underside of their massive Christmas tree, their placing of a framed picture of her and Harris to their already over-crowded mantel.
        “Your very first seder,” Joanna told him upstairs in her childhood bedroom, trying on varieties of outfits that would not further harsh her crotch. The Monistat wasn’t so very stat, after all – it would take at least a day until she’d feel any relief. She’d have to go commando, no question. Let it breathe. Marilyn used to say that, an admonishment to never wear underwear to bed. Your vagina needs to breathe, Joanna could recall hearing in lieu of a bedtime story, covers pulled to her chin. A pretty disconcerting image for a little girl, needless to say—she had feared for years that she was smothering her vagina under clothes all day, that the beast of it (teeth and all) was gasping for air under her jeans. She’d taken fastidiously in high school to a pair of deliciously ratty, paint-splattered denim overalls, roomy in the crotch, which she wore still. Roomy in the crotch had come to be, in fact, a central tenet of Joanna’s fashion sense.
        “I’ve been to a seder before,” Harris said, mock-outraged, though no, of course he hadn’t. He’d bought out their neighborhood bookstore of Harold Kushner, stopped mixing dairy and meat, started peppering his speech with Yiddishisms, expressed huge retroactive gratitude for the perfunctory circumcision performed on multitudes of male infants born in urban hospitals in the early seventies. “The re-telling of our emancipation from slavery gets me all farklempt everytime.” He wiped away a faux tear. The absurdity of finding a philo-Semite here, in her life! She had suggested that they simply skip Passover, stay in Berkeley, go out for Indian, what did she care? But noooo, Harris wanted to “experience” it, home-style.
        “It’s the longest, most boring holiday ever,” she’d told him. “It’s the worst. You get constipated, you get sick on bad wine, you talk biblical mythology until everyone nods off in their bone-dry matzo-cake. I promise, it sucks!” He wouldn’t hear any of it.
        “I want to show you that I’m amenable to Judaism,” he’d said.
        “I believe that’s the official motto of post-World War Two Europe, honey,” she’d retorted. And here they were.
        “I’m not feeling so hot,” she said, forgoing the notion of pants entirely. She stepped into a red silk skirt, then back out of it when she remembered she’d be wearing no underwear and wasn’t sure how well silk took to yeasty discharge. Then back into it when she realized who gave a fuck. A cool breeze fanned the flame of her womanhood. She relished the air.
        Harris opened his messenger bag, removed a bottle of Coke. “You look ravishing.” He took a swig. “Not a winner,” he sighed, glancing at the underside of the cap.
        “Fuck, Harris, I don’t think Coke is kosher for Passover.” But neither was she at the moment, with yeast multiplying exponentially in her crotch, maybe enough by now to bake a loaf or two of forbidden bread. Though she was half-afraid to explain this particular aspect of the ailment, unsure she wouldn’t be sold out by gung-ho Harris and then hunted down with candle and feather by Marilyn, sprung immediately and unceremoniously from the house: revealed to be very, very un-Kosher for Passover.
        He froze, mid-sip, looked left and right. “Um. What do we do?”
        “Just give it to me. Here.” She screwed the top back on and then put the bottle in the cabinet below the sink in her bathroom, with crusted hair de-frizz and twelve-year-old sunblock.
        “I’m sorry! Should I, like, shower or something?” He seemed to really want to be part of this thing, this random set of rules with no connection to him whatsoever.
        “I think you’re okay, babe.”
        “Or brush my teeth?”
        “Harris. No one has to know. It’s fine. We’ll just keep this between us.”
        “But I’ll know.”
        She held her hand up in front of his face and waved it around a couple of times. “There, now I’ve absolved you. That’s how it works. You’re clean.” She crossed herself, did some half-recalled sign language from when that deaf lady with the perm guest-starred on Sesame Street, and flipped him the bird.
        “I love you,” he said. They stretched out on her old trundle bed with white aluminum curlicue frame. He was huge, a bear. He enveloped her entirely, radiating warmth like clothes fresh from the dryer.
        “Don’t,” she told him when he slid his hand from between her knees up under the skirt. “Problem in my pants.”
        “Ah, yes,” he said. “I forgot. Sorry. Me too.” He amiably directed her hand to his hard-on.
        They lay there together, breathing slowly, listening to the doorbell ring and to Ron shouting Elijah and to Marilyn speciously chirping hel-lo! Come in! After a few minutes, Joanna untangled herself halfway to grab a felt-tip pen and illustrate Ron’s place cards. When she was satisfied with her appropriation and representations of blood (Aunt Barbi), frogs (Stacey), vermin (Kevin), wild beasts (Uncle Larry), pestilence (Jason), boils (Aunt Jackie), hail (Bob), locusts (Uncle Steve), darkness (Ron), and slaying of the firstborn (Marilyn), she re-constituted herself into Harris’ embrace and softly gnawed his thumb pad. There weren’t enough plagues to go around, and since Harris was a newbie and she herself was currently afflicted with one even the fucking Egyptians had been spared, Joanna had just drawn little fat balloon hearts on Harris’ place card and a little personified, grinning sun on her own.
        “Ready to face the enemy?”
        He scowled. “My ancestors could’ve blood-libeled yours into oblivion.”
        “Let’s go,” she said, opening her bedroom door. “We’re gonna get totally shitfaced on Manischewitz. It’s, like, mandated.”
        Harris followed her down the stairs and into the living room.
        “Here she is…” boomed Ron, the opening of “Miss America.”
        And there they all were, sitting or leaning on the beige L-shaped sofa: the sum total of Joanna’s familial relations. Marilyn was an only child, so that line dead-ended with Joanna. Ron’s three siblings, Barbi, Steve and Jackie, were, respectively: a type-A bitch on wheels, a sociopathic loner, and a chronically ill co-dependent. And the next generation? Kevin and Jason, MIT grads who always referred to Joanna’s forte as “arts and crafts” and pretended to forget the name of the state school she’d attended; and Stacey, a developmentally disabled mama’s girl, living at home, thrilled to death at thirty-five with the possibility of getting licensed to do nails. Ten pairs of eyes fixed on Harris.
        “Hi,” he said, like a champ, with a doleful wave it would be impossible not to love. Joanna thought.
        “This is Harris,” she said. Everyone nodded politely and took note of Harris, the goy. For shame. And Joanna an only child. And Marilyn an only child. The Jewish people would die out, and whose fault was it? She handed the place cards (“plague cards”, he called them) off to Ron.
        Harris didn’t quite get that upon meeting Joanna’s family he would indeed be defined solely by what he was not. He also didn’t get what so depressed Joanna about this gathering, this particular grouping of people. “As if their meager numbers weren’t sad enough…,” she’d explained. “It’s terrible. They’re all such losers, and there are so few of them.”
        “This is Joanna’s friend, Harris,” Marilyn said, redundant, and then the whole room finally jumped to life with hello, how nice to finally, welcome, hey there. Kevin and Jason, smirking, caught Joanna’s eye from across the room and shook their heads unhurriedly, side-to-side, implied tongues clicking.
        Joanna had to summon up every iota of social fear and control in her being to keep from reaching down the waist of her skirt and itching, itching, itching some more. She plopped loudly and ungracefully down on the couch, hoping contact would alleviate some of the distress.
        Dr. Brooks, her pediatrician, had once stuck a finger all the way up inside her during a routine checkup when she was, who knows, maybe nine.
        “Don’t ever let anyone do that to you,” he’d said to her after a brief moment, making her look him in the eyes. “If anyone ever tries to do that to you, you don’t let them. You tell a grownup. Understand?” He kept staring at her, insistent, until she nodded, finally, slowly, mortified. But, she thought later, in the car with Marilyn, confused and still—still!—absolutely mortified, his words ringing in her ears and the feeling of his huge cold finger lingering, he had done it to her. Did that count or didn’t it?
        She had sunk into the passenger seat next to her mother that day, blistering shame, positive that there was something different, something noticeable about her that would bring on castigation and exile. She was shocked (and lonely, oddly, a new feeling that threw a net over her and dragged her away from the girl she thought she was) when Marilyn had seemed not to notice a thing, and had only suggested blithely that they go get an ice cream cone.
        Aunt Jackie came over and laid a loud smooch on Joanna’s cheek.
        “Hey, Aunt Jackie.”
        “He seems nice.”
        “He is.”
        An old painting of Joanna’s hung above them, a Chagall rip-off from grad school.
        “Still painting, sweetheart?”
        “Not really. Sometimes.”
        “That’s a shame. You were so talented.”
        “I’m still talented,” Joanna said. “Just not actively.”
        “Candles!” Marilyn called. “Ladies.” Joanna and Jackie joined Barbi and Stacey by the buffet and they lit the candles. Jackie sang the blessing in high-pitched vibrato, doing her best Joni Mitchell on the transliteration Marilyn gave her.
        At the table, everyone found their place cards and stood behind their chairs awaiting instruction. Joanna’s mismatched setting (so yellow, so overtaken by daisies a shade of pink last seen in the era of punk, so loud and unseemly) languished amidst stately, banded Grandma Bess’, set her incontrovertibly apart. The travesty of the broken plate and its larger implications of wholeness defiled within the twelve-set dreams of her late grandmother, was further implicated in the raw and extraordinarily uncomfortable state of her genitalia. The maternal line, the whole fertility arena, the way, when Joanna clamped her thighs together, desperate for some friction, everyone else’s red poppies swam together like healthy Georgia O’Keefe twats in miniature.
        “Oh, is that cute,” Aunt Barbi held up her plague card, squinting. “Joanna, this must be your handiwork.” Joanna had, for Blood, done a little cartoon Lady Macbeth, furiously attacking her hand, out, damned spot in a speech bubble.
        Harris had been placed across from Joanna, and he smiled at her now over the perfectly laid table, just the two of them, apart and distant from this disparate family. They would start their own. So talented, he mouthed at her.
        “Well,” said Marilyn. “Welcome to our Seder. We’re so glad to have you all here this year.” Barbi reigned in a nasty tight-lipped smile.
        “We’re so glad to be here, Aunt Marilyn,” Stacey was wearing a dress that made Joanna’s plate cower in floral fever pitch, her nails done in pattern to match.
        “Sit, sit, everyone sit.” Everyone sat. “Some of us have never been to a seder before,” Marilyn continued, nodding overtly at Harris. “So we hope you’ll feel comfortable participating as much or as little as you’d like.” Harris, his face gone pink like a healthy vulva, looked down at his poppy, his thick navy-blue band, his evenly spaced flatware. He wore his new kippah, which bore a Hebrew transliteration of his hilariously un-Hebraic name. Ha-reess.
        “This is the bread of affliction,” Kevin said, breaking off a corner of matzah and waving it around at Harris. “That’s all you have to know, bro. Eat too much and you won’t have a bowel movement for days.” Jason and Larry chuckled, and Harris nodded solemnly. In Joanna’s head, the musical refrain: one of these things is not like the other…
        “Good to know, good to know.”
        Ron passed around his doctored haggadot, myriad colorful post-its and inserts poking out from within. “Harris. Will you do us the privilege of reading us the order of the seder on page four?” To Ron’s right, Harris’ eagerness gave him the air of a magician’s assistant. He nodded, cleared his throat.
        “One. Recite the Kaddish—”
        Aunt Barbi giggled. “The Kaddish is for the dead. We don’t want to say Kaddish any time soon.”
        “Recite the Kiddush, sorry. Two. Wash the hands. Three. Eat a green vegetable. Four. Break the middle matzah and hide half of it for the Afikomen. Five. Recite the Passover story. Six. Wash the hands before the meal. Seven. Say the Hamotzi and the special blessing for the matzah. Eight. Eat the bitter herb. Nine. Eat the bitter herb and the matzah together. Ten. Serve the festival meal. Eleven. Eat the Afikomen. Twelve. Say the Grace after Meal. Thirteen. Recite the Hallel. Fourteen. Conclude the seder.”
        Joanna watched him as he spoke. From Harris’ mouth, viewed from without, the seder sounded totally foreign even to her, like common cultural phenomena described in purely anthropological terms. A man’s necktie was nothing more than a long thin swatch of fabric, which a man must fold specifically into a knot at his throat if he wishes to be taken seriously in business, the failure to properly do so relegates him to a lower social and economic strata. Who gave a shit in those terms? Who could tie a tie with any measure of importance or seriousness in those terms? Jesus, why bother? Getting a master’s was reduced, simply, to the ritualized study of a specific topic leading up to conference of inflated intellectual status by those who have already completed ritualized study, everything was rendered meaningless and pointless from the outside, everything familiar and taken-for-granted canceled out entirely. So it was. A Seder was: recite the Kiddush, wash the hands, eat a green vegetable, break the middle matzah, recite the story, wash the hands, say the blessings, eat the bitter herb, eat the bitter herb and matzah together, serve the festival meal, eat the Afikomen, say Grace, recite the Hallel. That was all. Get too carried away with that line of thinking, however, and one might find oneself wearing the same underwear for three days, dropping out of one’s MFA program, and invalidating one’s semi-beloved family Seder with one’s unforgivable, covert, probable un-Kosherness. Joanna leaned alternately into one hip and then the other to avoid direct pressure on the insistent itch while her ugly plate hurled insults at her. Pussy, it hissed. Cunt.
        When he was finished, Harris looked up at her. He was doing this for her. He loved her this much. What did one do with this kind of love? Love that did not leave one with broken heirlooms or moot promises or venereal disease? One of these things was most definitely not like the other.
        “We searched the house for hametz today,” Ron boomed, winking at Joanna. “Didn’t we, pumpkin?”
        “Yes,” added Marilyn, “so you can all rest easy.” She giggled. “The house is clean!” There was no end to the inferiority complex wrought by Barbi. Historically, they despised each other.
        “So on page one,” Ron went on, “we’ll repeat the blessing we said earlier, when we burned the last of the bread. This second time, it’s actually letting us off the hook a little, in case we missed anything when we did our search. Because nobody’s perfect, right?” Again he winked at Joanna. He seemed to wink at her more often now in direct proportion to how much older she’d gotten since the last time he’d taken note.
        He repeated the blessing for all the hametz they might not have found, a blessing for the blind spot, the things invariably missed. Uncle Steve, obedient and entirely without social skills, read along.
        “Any leaven in my possession, which I have or have not seen, which I have or have not removed, shall be as if it does not exist, and as the dust of the earth.” It was the second time she’d heard this today, and for the second time Joanna wondered if she wasn’t glowing pink and fluorescent yellow and ultra-violet, if it wasn’t totally obvious to anyone capable of looking, of really looking, that this implicated her in a hundred obvious ways.
        Where was the blessing for Unbearable Vulvar Itch? She flipped impatiently through her Haggadah, squirmed in her seat and squelched the all-but-irresistible urge to grind her fist into her lap, a thousand red ants congregated in her crotch.
        They did the Kiddush and drank the first of way too many cups of sick-sweet wine, they passed around a big bowl and pitcher and ceremoniously washed their hands. They dipped parsley into salt water and munched like horses. Ron broke the middle matzah and wrapped half in his napkin for the Afikomen, making a big show of it and smiling broadly at the “kids”—Joanna and Stacey and Jason and Kevin.
        Back in the day, this had been the best thing about Passover. A Jewish equivalent to the Easter egg hunt. After the meal, said the old “Pathways to Freedom” Haggadah, the children search for the half of Matzah which has been hidden. The one who finds it is to be rewarded. When the hidden part is found, the two halves are put back together again. This is a sign that what is broken off is not really lost to our people, so long as our children remember and search. And on taped-in, blinding orange paper, Ron’s feminist, post-modern, politically relevant addenda: a midrash about soulmates, about two halves of a whole reunited for the order of one’s life to be complete.
        The dining room table, so deliberately laid, was beginning to be messed with now, plates pushed an inch this way or that to make room for Uncle Larry’s elbows or Aunt Jackie’s inhaler. There were no children at this seder; there would be no shouting, giggling, running to find the Afikomen when the time came. She and Stacey and Kevin and Jason would be coerced into a mock search for the thing (which Ron will have “hidden” in plain view under the piano) and then be rewarded with something asinine, like a dime.
        Of course she was going to have to ask the goddamn Four Questions. She was a jackass for thinking she’d get out of it, now or ever. She was an only child, she was the youngest cousin. It had been her job since she could read, since she could be trusted to make the table Look Pretty. How is this night different from all others? It’s not, twat.
        But when they turned the page, Joanna bracing herself for the indignity of asking, in song, at thirty-one years of age, in front of her boyfriend, with this bogus traditional wonderment, what it was all about, she saw that Ron had supplanted the traditional questions with something new, Xeroxed on fluorescent purple: How Different This Night Is! It was a statement, rendered with full shock and awe. How different this night is! She almost laughed out loud, because this she could sing, this she could relate to her own actual experience! An exclamation point! This night was goddamn Different, and in more ways than one! Question mark? Feh!
        From her own precise location on the map of things, Joanna was going to tell them all how it was. No more asking; she was a woman now. No amiable, broad, open-ended, question-marked wondering! Listen up, motherfuckers!
        “Joanna, my darling girl,” Ron said. “Will you do us the honor of telling us how this night is different?” Harris wore an expression of overwrought interest, eyebrows raised, that recalled for Joanna the playground admonition to be careful lest one’s face get stuck that way. She stared at him for a moment, then smiled at her father.
                “I will.”


Excerpted from HOW THIS NIGHT IS DIFFERENT by Elisa Albert. Copyright ©2006 by Elisa Albert. Excerpted with permission by Free Press, a Division of Simon & Schuster, Inc.

Elisa Albert is the author of The Book of Dahlia, a novel, and How This Night is Different, a short story collection. She was recently Visiting Writer at the Netherlands Institute for Advanced Study, and she teaches creative writing at Columbia University.


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