The Beginning of After - By Jennifer Castle

Chapter One

Anyone who’s had something truly crappy happen to them will tell you: It’s all about Before and After. What I’m talking about here is the ka-pow, shake-you-to-your-core-and-turn-your-bones-to-plastic kind of crappy. One part of your life unyokes from the other.

I use this word, unyoke, because I spent my last few hours of Before studying the Us on an SAT vocabulary list. It was April of my junior year in high school. I was sixteen, and I had the test date, less than two weeks away, marked with three purple exclamation points on my wall calendar.

Unyoke: to separate. Mr. Lee from my SAT prep course taught us to create a mental image that would help us remember what a word meant. I pictured myself making cake frosting in our chipped blue china bowl, pulling the snot of an egg away from its yolk. I moved on to upbraid.

My mom yelled down the hallway from her bedroom. “Laurel, tell your brother to get dressed! We have to leave in twenty minutes!”

Otherwise known as twenty minutes until my Chinese water torture. I would have been happy hanging with the Us all night, but instead I just drew an arrow next to upbraid to mark where I’d left off, and headed toward the sweet, slightly indecent smell of my mother’s pot roast to do what I was told.

Thanks to all my Mr. Lee–inspired visualizing, I remember my family that night, as they got ready to leave our house and never come back, in moving snapshots. My mother fluttering between her laptop and closet, answering emails while trying on her blue dress, then her green dress, then the blue one again. My dad trudging up the driveway, fresh from the neighborhood carpool out of Manhattan, sliding his tie free of his collar. My brother, Toby, playing Xbox in the den, sunk so low into his tricked-out gaming chair it was hard to remember that he actually had a spine and could walk erect.

“Mom says you have to put on your khaki pants and the brown shoes,” I said to him from the doorway.

“You mean my geek clothes? Uh, no way.” He didn’t look up.

“It’s Passover. She’s making me wear a dress.”

“I don’t get why we have to do this.”

“Mrs. Kaufman was worried we’d be lonely because Nana isn’t coming down for seder this year.” We were in the New York suburbs, just an hour north of the city, but Nana lived upstate. The Kaufmans were our neighbors three houses away.

“I was hoping we could just order pizza.”

“Tell me about it,” I said.

“What, you don’t want to hang with your best buddy over there?” Toby actually lifted his eyes from the TV to toss me a little-brother sneer.

“Shut up,” I said lamely, heat surging to a spot on the back of my neck.

“Guys!” my dad said, suddenly in the room. “None of that tonight, okay? Especially you, Mr. Attitude.” He playfully poked Toby’s shoulder. “Be a grown-up. You did just get bar mitzvahed, after all.”

“And he’s got thirteen hundred dollars in checks from the relatives to prove it,” I said. At that, my father smiled at me, one of those dad-smiles that make you feel like the only daughter in the world.

Soon we were all changed and heading out the door, my parents each carrying a foil-covered dish. Toby tugged quickly at the crotch of his good pants, thinking nobody saw.

Mrs. Kaufman was tiny. So tiny, people were always asking her if she was okay. Dad said he worried about her on windy days. The sharp jut of her collarbone made me wonder if it would hurt to touch it.

Now she sat at the head of her big oak dining table, drumming two manicured fingers on her good china. My parents and Toby and I shifted in our chairs, while Mr. Kaufman stood in the corner of the room with a glass of scotch, saying “You betcha, you betcha” again and again to someone on the other end of his cell phone.

“I’m sorry,” Mrs. Kaufman said to us. “David said he’d be right down.”

We waited another few minutes. I was nervous and hated it, trying to ignore Toby kicking my ankle under the table. Finally, Mr. Kaufman hung up the phone, stomped to the stairway, and pounded his fist on the banister. “David!” he bellowed in a voice that shook the Kaufmans’ crystal water glasses.

A pause. I heard footsteps, a door closing, stairs thumping. The sound of David Kaufman joining us for seder.

Then there he was, all