Thursday, April 1, 2010

Of Parties and Poverty

The dining room was exquisitely decorated in shades of maroon and red, accented with gold fixtures, setting the relaxing mood the host hoped to impart onto her guests. The table, already set, was lined with expensive china, silver toned cutlery and carefully folded napkins. The way everything was arranged, one would have thought this was a meal for a king. Yet as the guests walked in, one could tell immediately that they were not royalty, rather members of the upper class society, eager for a nice time. Amongst the meal participants was Ahuva, thrilled at the chance to partake in such an elegant meal… even more so, to host it in her own home. She descended the staircase leading into the waiting area wearing a flowing black gown, embellished with rhinestones. She looked, and felt like a princess as all the guests stared up at her, envious of her beauty, wealth and prestige. Ahuva flashed a humble smile as she led her guests into the dining room. They followed like ducks in a line, her friends and family, smiling just as brightly as Ahuva.

By her order, everyone sat down to begin the meal. Light music, provided by a flute, violin and piano played in the background, mingled with the pleasant chatter of the guests. Ahuva welcomed each guest individually, by name, inquiring as to how each one’s family was, what they were doing and how they were feeling. From the way she asked, each guest felt as if she was genuinely interested. Truth be told, Ahuva was! She enjoyed hearing about the good news of others and the guests were happy to share.

The meal went on, course by course, of perfectly cooked meats, fresh vegetables, delicious fruits to cleanse between courses and a decadent assortment of desserts in every type of flavor imaginable: chocolate, vanilla, mint, fruit, cakes, cookies and ice cream. The guests, full and happy, left the meal satisfied of hunger and of sad spirit. After the last guest left, Ahuva clapped her hands for the maids to come and clean up the remainders of the meal. Happy to see them working swiftly, Ahuva made her way to her room. Opening the door, Ahuva sighed with content. Everything looked picturesque in its place.

Shedding her gown, Ahuva hurried into her bed to snuggle warmly under the covers. She closed her eyes to fall back into a restful sleep…

But instead of dreaming peacefully, Ahuva awoke to see the nightmare that was her life. Instead of being surrounded by a four poster bed, elegant paintings and expensive china dolls, Ahuva saw her small cramped room with a broken dresser, cracked mirror and clothes strewn in every direction. Ripped books and dirty paraphernalia littered the floor. Instead of soft lights lighting the room, one lone lamp stood in the corner casting eerie shadows across the room. Ahuva held back the tears that burned against her eyes. She had had dreams like this one before—wistful imaginative portraits of what she wished her life was like—filled with elegant parties, high society guests and everyone admiring her instead of the other way around.

Knowing she would be unable to fall back asleep, Ahuva groggily went out of her room. She walked down the tiny hallway that led to the kitchen which doubled as the front entrance to her family’s two bedroom apartment. Ahuva tiptoed as quietly as she could. She was not eager to wake her two sisters and three brothers from their slumber knowing it would only result in a lot of yelling and tension… though that wasn’t unusual. Every day of Ahuva’s life was a battle—against her siblings, her parents, and herself.

It wasn’t difficult. Any little comment or antic could set any member of her family off. Money… clothes… school… it didn’t matter what the topic was, somebody was sure to find it a sore one. Ahuva had trained herself to speak only when spoken to. She learned to stop complaining about the broken plumbing, the cracks in the walls and the lack of lighting in her home. Her family of eight had been living like this for as long as Ahuva could remember… though there had been a time when they lived in peace, comfort and relatively wealthy.

But a bad business deal from her father’s company had sent Ahuva’s family plummeting into bankruptcy. Her father lost all respect anyone had ever had for him and other partners and companies pulled out of doing business with him. In one night they had gone from the most respected family in the community to one of the most scorned. Ahuva went to school each day wearing the exact same thing she had worn the day before… laundry was done once a month and she and her siblings were expected to keep their clothes clean as long as possible. If not, they would have to wear dirty clothes. New clothes had ceased to be bought. Food was rationed. Electricity was barely used. Luxuries liked computers or CDs were sold long ago to pay for that which they barely had or used.

Too upset and too awake to go back to sleep, Ahuva decided to go for a walk. She pulled on her worn, hole-filled boots, her two year old coat and left her apartment. The descending staircase leading her outside smelled of smoke, old socks and too-sweet perfume—such was one of the sorrows of living in a building with other “interesting” people. Ahuva remembered when she had her own room, her own wing of her own house! How far she had fallen… how low her family had sunk.

The cold wind was like a million little knives stabbing her skin. Ahuva didn’t even try to block the cold. She was too busy trying to hold back her tears. These midnight walks were normal for her. She would fall asleep, dead tired from a seemingly endless day of stress, drift into a deliriously wonderful dream, wake up and be hit, head on, with the reality of her life. It was difficult to come to terms with, yet impossible to ignore: she went to sleep with the heat off. She could only use the water in her apartment sparingly. Showers were taken only twice a week, and even then, they had to be quick. The longer the shower, the larger the leak would be from the worn out bath lining… six siblings, two parents, one shower and a very strict schedule. Anyone who deviated from those rules went to bed hungry—punishment for wasting money, and simply for not listening to the rules.

It wasn’t as if her parents did this to be cruel dictators and money pinchers. In fact, there was no money to pinch. Ahuva’s parents were trying to make do with practically nothing. The Gemachs tried to help out but Ahuva’s father was too proud—or to distraught from his situation—to accept anything. Ahuva’s mother would accept the charity without her husband knowing, trying to alleviate the pain the children felt… but it was a pathetic attempt.

Yitz and Doniel, Ahuva’s older twin brothers were forced to leave their prestigious yeshiva because it cost too much in tuition to continue going. Ahuva and her sister Esther could no longer keep up with the fashions like their friends did. Because of familial connections to their high school, they were able to stay, but felt the pressure of staying at a cut cost. They had to uphold perfect grades or they could wave goodbye to their school. Ahuva’s younger siblings, Devora, Reuvein, and Yoel, suffered the most. Children can be cruel and to these three siblings, they were no exception. Blunt comments, hurled insults and savage cruelty faced them every day as they tried to face middle and elementary school in rags.

Ahuva sucked in the cool air. She kept hoping that if she went out on these walks, someone would take pity on her and take her in to their home, and adopt her and… she kept dreaming and wishing, but that was all it was to be. Ahuva continued walking until she couldn’t feel her fingers. Finally, she turned to go back into her apartment. Before she even pulled open the door, she was hit with a full force realization—what if things never change? The strength of that question pulled her down. She fell onto the cold cement steps, clutched her legs close to her chest and began sobbing copious tears. In all the time since her father’s downfall, Ahuva never cried. She accepted each trauma she faced throughout the ordeal as simply part of the bigger picture… all the little pieces fitting together into one portrait depicting a part of her life… yet, another night in the cold made her realize that things could really stay the same.

“What will be?” she whispered through choked sobs. Her throat felt thick as she tried to hold back her tears. The city lights around her apartment shone brightly, yellows and reds with the occasional neon pink and green, all shining in the night. Ahuva stared up at them like a small child staring up at the stars. The neighborhood she lived in now was devoid of any natural stars—the buildings, stores and offices did a good job of blocking them out. Occasionally Ahuva could see the moon peeking through the buildings but it was always fleeting. Some other unnatural light would come along and block out the moon.

But the stars… it was the stars she missed the most. In her old neighborhood where her house had a sprawling yard, trees and plenty of space to stretch out and watch the stars, Ahuva would spend her nights staring up at the sky, admiring the small twinkling lights. Here in the crowded city, Ahuva couldn’t recapture her youthful ways of watching the stars. The very corporations that had stolen her father’s dignity now blocked any shred of hope she had with their massively hideous buildings.

A siren in the distance brought Ahuva back from her far off thoughts of a different life. She knew she would never regain her fairytale life of fancy dresses and pretty parties. It would take thousands of dollars to put her family back to where they were before they fell into this dark oblivion… Ahuva just hoped she would last in her dire predicament, long enough to see the brighter side of her sad life… and maybe to see the stars, those brighter lights, once more.

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