The cover of “Don’t Wait Up” by Liz Astrof.
Below is an excerpt from “Don’t Wait Up” by Liz Astrof. Copyright © 2019 by Liz Astrof. Reprinted by permission of Gallery Books, an imprint of Simon & Schuster Inc.
It’s been years since the brother I knew was replaced by the religious doppelgänger bearing a strong resemblance to him. I may not accept it, but I tolerate it — and for the sake of maintaining a close relationship and fostering one between our children, once in a while Todd and I suck it up and spend a holiday with Jeff and his family.
Like lunch at his house one recent Rosh Hashanah. Dad and our stepmother Cathy had come up to visit with Mitzy, their Maltipoo and favorite child, whom they had smothered into insanity with their artisanal cocktail of affection, control and ambient terror. Jeff, my sister-in-law Stephanie, Todd and I were all of the same opinion that she was forever trying to kill herself.
Todd and I had been pretty lax in the religion department. But Jesse was six and Phoebe was four and so, during our ride over I explained that even though it was New Year’s, it was the Jewish kind, that didn’t come with confetti and staying up until midnight, but with praying and bad food.
“So you’re Jewish,” I continued. “Got it?”
“Not Christmas?” Phoebe asked.
“No, you’re Hanukkah.”
“I think she was asking if we were Christians,” Jesse said.
“You’re not that, either,” I told them.
“Is there a Santa Claus?” Phoebe asked.
“Yes,” I said, only because I don’t want my kids to tell the Catholic kids and then we’re those a**holes.
The talk had proven so easy, I decided to broach another thorny subject. “So kids… you need to know that Mommy and Daddy are going to die someday.”
That didn’t go over as well.
After the kids stopped crying and carrying on about our imminent deaths, we spent the rest of the ride discussing what they wanted for Christmas. It had been a little premature of me to have the “death talk” when they’d yet to experience death with anything beyond the occasional fly.
The moment we entered Jeff’s house, we were hit with a burst of hot air that smelled of chicken, root vegetables — and if Jewishness had a smell, that. Jeff was the picture of Orthodoxy, looking less like the comedy writer I knew and more like a Hasidic Abraham Lincoln. The dining table had been extended to accommodate what looked like an entire road company of Fiddler on the Roof.
I found his wife Stephanie in the kitchen. She pointed out that my favorite Orthodox friend of theirs was there. The most “normal” of them all, he bore an uncanny resemblance to Tom Cruise, which tells you a lot about the scale I’m using for “normal.”
I sat at the table next to Todd and across from Dad and Cathy, who stood out like an Irish Catholic sore thumb, fanning herself with a napkin. She told me the AC was broken, and because of “Jewish rules” they couldn’t call the guy to come because no one was allowed to touch the phone.
My brother had chosen this life of excessive suffering — their house, their rules. So I sat there in an ever-growing pool of my own sweat.
After lunch, the Orthodox wives moved into the kitchen to discuss their nation of children, leaving the menfolk to sit around the table to discuss the nation of Israel. I retreated to the living room with Todd, my dad, Cathy and Orthodox Tom Cruise, who plopped down on the couch next to me and focused his attention on trying to find a rock in his shoe.
When it comes to our family, as I’m sure it does with others, this is when the TV usually comes on. But in this kosher house, where we couldn’t operate anything more mechanical than the doorknob on the way out, we would now be forced to talk to each other.
Perhaps it was the lack of AC making me woozy or the fact that we’d burned through the small talk in five minutes flat or even all the “death” talk on our way over, that made me decide to broach the subject of my twin sister who had bitten the dust before we were born.
I hadn’t learned about her until I was in high school and took a good look at my birth certificate where, in the space after “How Many Children Born,” was the handwritten notation “Two Female.”
“Hey — did my twin sister have a name before she died?” I asked.
My Dad stared straight ahead and didn’t answer.
“You and Jeff had a sister?” Orthodox Tom Cruise asked. “Did she have a name?”
“No, she didn’t,” My father suddenly boomed. “She was dead on arrival. Where’s the dog?”
I pointed to Mitzy across from his chair and asked, “So… was she complete? Did she have all her… parts?”
“She’d been dead a while,” he answered, “She was smaller than you — but she was formed, yes.”
Until now, I’d thought she was a blob of cells or a cyst with teeth and hair that might pop out of my neck if I lost enough weight. But I’d had a full-sized sister. “So what did they do with her?” I asked.
“I don’t know!” My father was becoming exasperated. He straightened his pant creases, looking on proudly as Mitzy uncrossed and re-crossed her paws. He knew every move his dog made, yet he had no idea what doctors did with his dead human fully formed daughter who had been my two legged-two-armed, sister. “It was the seventies, Liz.”
Orthodox Tom Cruise asked Todd if this was all for real. Todd assured him it was.
I was starting to feel a vague panic I couldn’t quite identify. I asked my father how long she’d been dead before they took her out, and watched him actually start to do the math.
“You were born two months early…” He calculated. “And they thought she died two weeks before that.” The details coming back to him, he sat upright, pointing to his middle. “Her umbilical cord was wrapped around here, in a way that kept her from growing, so… she died.” He threw his hands up, the first show of emotion he demonstrated.
“That’s common,” Cathy said.
“Do they know if you were fraternal or identical?” Orthodox Tom Cruise asked me, knowing I couldn’t possibly know, but so personally thrown that he wanted the question out there.
My Dad had settled back in his chair. A yawn escaped him; he closed his eyes.
“One sac means identical, two means fraternal.” He gestured in my general direction. “They were in one sac,” he mumbled sleepily.
So, I had been a they. As they as they come. Identical. Another me. Maybe I held her as she died, held my dead sister for two weeks until we emerged — one alive, one dead — from our mother.
The thought of carrying a child almost to term only to have it die in the last few weeks was unbearable, something I would wish on no mother, not even that witch of a woman who’d left when I was six.
I found myself sympathizing with her. It was the stuff of nightmares. Of my family. Of my mother, who was warped as they come.
As was my habit (and my profession mandated), I obviously had to make a joke. “At least Mom had me! One for the price of two?!”
My father laughed, but not the kind I was going for. “She sure as hell didn’t want anything to do with you,” he chuckled.
“She hated me because my sister died?” I asked. “She blamed me?”
His bitter cackle was enough to rouse Mitzy, who had fallen asleep. Cathy shushed him, and he continued in a softer, condescending voice.
“Your mother’s problem wasn’t that your sister died,” he said matter-of-factly. “Her problem was that you lived. She didn’t want more kids.”
Suddenly Caleb, my nephew, who’d inherited my brother’s sarcasm and comedic timing, appeared.
“Jesse fell in the pool!” he yelled, smirking.
As Todd and I bolted outside, Cathy called after us to make sure we closed the door so Mitzy wouldn’t get out.
It wasn’t that Jesse couldn’t swim. Jesse didn’t like surprises; they made him anxious, and in the words of his school principal, he required “a lot of emotional unpacking.”
I could relate. Could I ever.
Todd pulled him out and ran inside to get a towel. Jesse stood there, his glasses crooked and dripping, the holiday outfit he’d assembled for himself to look “sharp” all soaking wet.
He balled his fists up tightly — in addition to anxiety, he had sensory issues. I knew we needed to stop this forty-nine-pound volcano from erupting.
I knelt down and bowed my head, like I’d learned to do to soothe my son. He leaned in and pressed his head against mine, like he’d learned do to be soothed.
“It’s okay, you’re okay,” I said, softly, over and over.
I felt the tension leaving his body. Relief.
Your mother’s problem wasn’t that your sister died. It was that you lived.
If I ever feared I was like my mother — which I did, every moment of every day — it was moments like this, knowing what to do for my child and wanting to do it, that proved I wasn’t anything like her.
“Elizabeth, you pamper him too much.” My father had come outside. “You’ll make him weird.”
He turned to go back in the house. Cathy was in the doorway.
“Where’s the dog?” He asked her.
“I thought you had her,” Cathy said, in a sudden panic.
“She’s in the pool!”
My niece Sasha was pointing at Mitzy who was swimming — or possibly trying to drown, Ophelia-like, the little pink bow that had been tied tightly atop her little bug-eyed head now floating toward the drain.
“Jesus Christ Almighty!” my dad yelled.
Jesse’s mood lightened, and soon he was cracking up along with his cousins as Dad and Cathy coaxed a definitely masochistic Mitzy out of the pool.
Jeff came over. “Thanks for coming today,” he said, and he meant it. He put his arm around me and wished me a Happy New Year.
Squeezing him tight, I wished him the same.
And I meant it.
Liz Astrof is an award-winning executive producer and one of the most successful sitcom writers in television today. She has worked on The King of Queens, 2 Broke Girls, Raising Hope, Whitney, Becker, and many more shows. She lives in California with her family.