Joyland

Montreal |

Shelter

by Nata Belza

edited by David McGimpsey

On the first night of Rosh Hashanah, our babysitter arrived at our front door and announced that her apartment building was infested with bedbugs. She had

On the first night of Rosh Hashanah, our babysitter arrived at our front door and announced that her apartment building was infested with bedbugs. She had broken her lease and left everything behind, except a garbage bag of essentials that she had washed in hot water for safe measure. She was heading to Sweden in a few days.

“A journey to sanity,” she giggled and bit her nails, “it's like losing everything in a fire.”

She shrugged her shoulders, trying to act like she was handling the situation, but her lower lids were blackened like charred walls, and her eyes were vacant, blown out windows.

“Are you sure you're ok?” I inquired.

“No, not handling it so well at all,” she said, sniffling and wiping her tears on the cuff of her sweatshirt. “Can I stay with you until I leave for Sweden? I could help out. It would cheer me up to be around Matt and Alex.”

Of course I said yes, and brought her in to join us for dinner. It was nice to have somebody unexpected at our table. We no longer celebrated the holidays with our families. Nathan's parents had retired in Arizona where his mother painted desert landscapes with her hippie friends. She spent Rosh Hashanah sitting on a cloud of incense in pretzel pose, chanting and tapping into her kundalini. As for my mother, she gave me intestinal cramps just by being herself.

Nathan and the two boys smiled as the babysitter sat down. Alex gave her a piece of apple from his plate and instructed her to dip it in honey for a sweet year as I slid the glass honey bowl towards her.

“Cool.” she said, pushing her sweatshirt sleeves up to her elbows. She reached for the bowl with her apple slice, revealing a chain of bug bites on her inner forearm. She popped the honey-dipped apple in her mouth and scratched at them.

As soon as the babysitter went through customs at the airport, I started scratching. I drove home and vacuumed everything, twice. I checked for smudges, smears, and black crumbs of bed bug feces on mattresses, bedding, pillow seams, our couch. I conducted Internet research on pest control. I did more field work in the bedrooms. The inspections were countless.

At two a.m., I lay on my belly, shinning a flashlight under the boys' beds. I expected an army of bed bugs marching towards me. A few Lego men lay stiff, their eyes open. I turned my flashlight off and held still for ten minutes, then hit them with a surprise attack, bombing the underside of the beds with my LED pocket lamp. Still nothing, just square-bodied, yellow-headed men. Afterwards, I tucked myself between my sheets with my cell phone, so that I could check and double check the layers of blankets until the flashing on and off of cell phone light woke Nathan up. He pried my phone out of my hand and wouldn't give it back unless I promised to keep the room in darkness, a promise I broke several times. He said, “What are you? Our five year old?” Then he got up and hid my phone. In the dark, my hands ran along the smooth, cold bed linen, encountering warm spots as I steered carefully around Nathan's body. When I felt sand-like grains underneath the skin of my palms, I crushed each one between my thumb and forefinger, just in case what I'd found were insects. I repeated the same procedure the next night, and then many more after that.

Ten days after the Jewish new year, it was Yom Kippur. I did not eat or drink on that day, but I kept watch on the edge of my bed for early signs of infestation. Wrecked from lack of sleep, I did not accompany Nathan and the boys to shul. I stayed home and repented for letting the babysitter stay at our house before she left for Sweden. I imagined her eating meatballs, washing them down with elderberry juice, which is when my faster's headache officially set in. After sundown, Nathan and the boys came home from services and sat at the table for a meal. I excused myself, my mouth loaded with cinnamon danish, and drove to the Linen Chest to buy protective mattress encasements before closing time. “If my mother calls, tell her I'm in the bathroom.” I shouted on the way out.

A protective mattress encasement prevents the infestation of a mattress, I read on the card from the package after I had encased our beds, it does not eliminate bed bugs. Bed bugs wait in cracks and crevices, USB ports and electrical outlets, in every angular half inch mouth starving for a phone jack. In other words, a mattress encasement is a good for nothing.

Four days after Yom Kippur, it was the holiday of Sukkot, its beginning made known by the setting sun. At exactly one hour before, my mother called.

“So,” she asked, chewing while talking, “what are you doing for Sukkot?”

She knew that I never did anything for Sukkot.

“Sorry to hear you're not doing anything. Your father would be so disappointed if he still were around.”

My stomach chugged with upset and my breath fizzled in dead air between us.

“Matt and Alex have no idea what there missing.” she added.

I wished her a good holiday and hung up. I rushed to the bedroom to make another inspection to make sure that everything was under control. I kneeled on floor and discovered brownish-black crumbs, which I gathered in my palm. I lifted them toward the light of my window, trying to convince myself that, logically, these were bits of the chocolate zucchini cake I had baked, but I wouldn't believe me. I rushed to flush the crumbs down the toilet and scrubbed my hands with soap and water. I swung and slammed closet doors. I grabbed sheets, a spool of string, a bucket of clothes pegs, my sharpest pair of scissors. Forget Sweden, I would build a sukkah and live in it for eight days. My journey to sanity, I would lose nothing to fire.

The vines in our yard hung heavy with dark blue grapes that only the squirrels harvested. I ran a line of string through their branches to form a rectangular shape, framing the picnic table from above. With clothes pegs placed at fist width from one another along the string, I suspended sheets so that the eating area was completely sheltered in white. Pale green leaves, some fading to yellow, fanned over the top borders of the four temporary cotton walls. This was not a traditional wooden sukkah like my father used to build, but it would have to do. Sundown was in thirty-nine minutes.

The backdoor squawked as it opened and Nathan muttered, “What is she doing now?”

“Myriam,” he called to me, “Me and kids are home.”

“Ok.” I said.

“Myriam,” Nathan repeated.

“Yup,” I answered.

“Everything ok?”

“Yup.”

“Myriam,” Nathan said again.

“What?” I said, sticking my head out from between the hanging sheets.

“What are you doing?”

“For Sukkos.”

“You're building a sukkah?” Nathan laughed. “The wind is going to take your hut down in one blow. It not kosher, you know. Look at your roof. Those vines are attached to the ground, if you care.”

“Will you stay out of it?” I groaned.

I walked out of my shelter made of the sheets and pulled my scissors from my belt loop. I cut some thin branches that had leaves and grape bunches growing from them and flung them up onto the rooted vines that ran from sheet to sheet.

“There.” I said. “A thatched roof made from cut material so I can see the stars. Just like the ones the Jews used in the desert when they left Egypt.”

Nathan shook his head.

“Hey look, a tent.” Matt and Alex ran out of the house, circling my sukkah. They chased after one another, cutting through the shelter. The picnic benches creaked as they stomped across them. Matt spiraled himself into a sheet to protect himself from Alex, who yanked at him, loosening the sheet from the clothes pegs. Matt dropped to the ground, his blue sneakered feet were not much bigger than a bunch of grapes, his twiggy legs stemmed from his white cocoon that had become streaked with earth. The sight of the dirty sheet seized me from behind my sternum.

“Get up, get up, get up” I panicked, “I don't have time for this.”

Alex threw a handful of dirt at Matt who wriggled around on the ground with fervor.

“Nathan” I barked, “do something.”

Nathan sat down at the picnic table, folding his lips into his mouth and starred over the rim of his glasses as he released a long, forceful stream of air from his nose.

I repaired the sukkah after Matt and Alex tore it down. I lit candles for the first time since childhood to welcome in the holiday. Nathan served barbecued chicken sausages with yellow mustard and dill pickles, ball park festive, as he called it. We ate at our picnic table surrounded by walls with a two hundred thread count. We celebrated Sukkot in our own way for the first time.

“Chag Sameach” The kids said as they kissed me goodnight. Just as they had wished me, I was hoping for a joyous holiday in my sukkah. I got dressed for my first night under the stars. Snow pants, parka, tuque, ski googles. Nathan caught a glimpse of me as I was lacing up my winter boots. He raised his eyebrows. I nodded. He understood this was not his journey. I put on my neck warmer and mittens and told him to lock the door behind me to drive in my point.

A gray cloud of puffy outerwear, I floated into my temporary shelter. I was prepared for the predicted temperature drop to three degrees Celsius. My mitten swept across the surface of the picnic table as I brushed away fallen grapes. As a child, I was never allowed to sleep in our sukkah. My father would bring me out with my three older brothers, but my mother would insist that bringing a cry baby like me into a sukkah for the night would guarantee that the event would be rained out by my tears by 10:01 p.m. I was sent in and they remained outside unless it poured with rain. My reputation stood strong until I left home. As an adult I had never bothered to with the Festival of Booths. It was just another thing that my mother had managed to ruin for me.

I stretched out on the table and gazed up through the vines at the navy blue sky. The edges of my view were smudged with soft, cool rays of street light. I was toasty in my snowsuit. If forty years in the desert was like this, I thought, I would have really gotten into it. Leaves rustled around me. The air was crisp yet earthy as the wind tossed the sheets towards the east, a little to the north. No phone, no keys, no money, just complete trust in the seventh cloud of glory that led the way across the sandy plains of the Sinai. I, swaddled in the security that everything will work out, no matter what. It was the life I wanted, and right there in my sukkah, suddenly it was mine.

A bucket clunked, pebbles spilled, a cat hissed as it leaped through the sheets that surrounded me, and landed on the picnic bench at my side. I bolted up into a seated position, my heart chattering. The cat's back was rounded, its tail bushy. I squinted through my ski goggles as we made eye contact.

“Phoebe” I whispered to the neighbour's cat, “go home.” As I said it, the odour of skunk hit me. I pulled my neck warmer up over my nose and slowly lowered myself back down onto the picnic table. I lay frozen. Nathan had found a scruffy skunk hanging out by our front door one morning, a few months back. Its fur has no shine and gathered in clumps. I watched it from the window as it hobbled down our front steps, over to the neighbours' door, just waiting there, peering up from under a yellowed tuft of fur that sat on the top of its head. A creep. Perverted. An impostor of a skunk.

Phoebe sat alert, focused in the direction where she had entered the sukkah. The skunk could have been anywhere in the yard. I held still and heard my mother's nasal voice, buzzing in my head, saying a house is no protection, for frogs came up from the river and filled all the houses; a nation is no fortress, for hordes of wild animals overran the cities, casting fear and confusion among the people.

Nausea overran me. I was sweating and wanted out of my winter clothes. Tingling pressure gripped the back of my skull, my ski goggles pushed into the bones around my eyes. I was struck by an itch so itchy that it confirmed that bed bugs had infested my snow suit. Translucent, appleseed-shaped exoskeletons forcing through the seams of my garments, hundreds of sticky bug feet crawling along my skin. Insects penetrated my pores, crowded my internal organs, fed off my the blood. I removed my goggles without breathing and slid them between my thighs so that they had nowhere to fall. A whiff of skunk air entered my nostrils when I could no longer hold my breath. I wondered if it was later than 10:01pm and said a prayer for rain like I meant it.