Sarah Seltzer: “After the Bar Mitzvah” from Joy Somewhere in the City, a Novel in Stories


Four days after the big event, Sharon continued to tally the compliments she’d received as hostess and mother of the bar-mitzvah boy. Her repetition—a meditation, a prayer—helped her to preserve it, to let it wash over her in hues of green, of deepest blue (her color scheme, of course) replaying like a saturated dream montage from a film.

Three guests had told Sharon that “Camp Cameron” surpassed all bar-mitzvahs they’d ever attended. Four had called it this year’s nicest. That totaled seven superlatives, as Cam, studying Latin, would tell her. True, most of the superlatives had come from friends with young children, out of competition range. No matter; it had been a coup. And that was French.

Sharon cleared the mail off the table and continued down her mental list:

8. Two relatives had confided that Sharon’s party rendered the rite-of-passage meaningful again.

9. Her mother-in-law had declared to those who hovered around her, “I sensed Bernie chose well the minute I met Sharon”—a lie, but a significant one.

And the photographer… well, Sharon had cradled that particular compliment from those apple-shaped lips since Saturday, rocking it back and forth like a fragile gift.

She could hear his searching tone as he asked whether she had an arts background and then (10.) nodded, confirming a hunch, when her mouth widened in delight. Her skin had tingled and her eye had welled, and she’d murmured: “Yes I’m from the theater but that’s all in the past.” He had called it a shame, as if he could tunnel into her soul. People on the Upper East Side didn’t often speak with his frankness, nor did they walk around with tattoos sneaking up out of their collar.

She had practically unspooled into the grass with the bliss of it, the personal pleasure he gave her layering a sheen over her son’s magnificent job with his chanting and his friend’s spirited participation. One of Cameron’s classmates, Rina, had serenaded him with a spirited “Happy Birthday,” shimmying her shoulders like a little showgirl, an innocent one. His clique clustered around the cake: Ezra, Rob, Maya, Theo, Rina, Mike.

A pity that girls had scrambled for their shoes and boys had shouted, “See you Monday.”

Now the memory, the knowledge that in her blue silk dress she had caught a man’s gaze, irritated her. Blandness came after. No catching of eyes. No susurration of fabric as she strode with purpose. No triumphs over in-laws. No audience; no role.

When she saw the photographer again this week it would be all business. She longed to see him anyway.

Sharon changed the water in the sole remaining centerpiece (she had given the rest to the cousins and her husband’s colleagues). The leaves flushed with new green.

But, oh, dear, the minutes spent counting compliments had gotten away from her, made her tardy. She shouldered her gym bag and trotted to Pilates, where her instructor said, “you’re drifting, Sharon,” as her legs hovered in the air. Afterwards, at the coffee shop on Lexington, she abandoned her skim-milk latte with a shot of sugar-free vanilla and splurged on a full-fat drink. Richness, heaviness, she needed it.

After her shower, she sat on the burnished wood floor of her dressing room—a tiny space between bathroom and bedroom, but such a luxury in New York—and rubbed acetone on her toenails to erase her peeling pedicure. The room, lined with mirrors, amplified Sharon’s deflated posture, the slump of her shoulders.

On Sunday, while Cameron slept in she and Bernie had made love with born-again abandon. He had said, “Well, that was fucking fantastic,” and she had said, “mmm… do you think there were enough canapés?”

“I didn’t marry you for your canapés,” growled Bernie. Too bad she had killed the vibe, but her mind lingered on the bar-mitzvah. Besides, better that Bernie didn’t know: in that frenzied moment as Bernie lunged for her in their four-poster bed, making her giggle, and even as he pinned her down with his weight she, pathetic to the core, had closed her eyes and pictured the photographer, his curls falling down across his face, his young hips pulsing against her not quite over-the-hill pelvis.

Sharon had a trilling voice and an industrious body. She spoke in a studied tone, clipped and consonant-rich, walked with her spine straight, her head upright, accompanied her words with emphatic hand gestures. These habits derived from a triple-headed career in her youth: model, actress, waitress. Today her duties were also threefold: wife, mother, party-planner extraordinaire.

Tonight she must wheedle Cam into writing more thank you notes. She had alphabetized the envelopes of checks made out in denominations of $18 for chai, for life: $36, $72, some even $180. Next week, she and Bernie would help Cam find a charity to which he could donate a few hundred bucks, so his speech about generosity might not ring false in retrospect.

This ticking off of tasks, this setting of her lips, ought to satisfy her. But when Sharon dispatched with her last toe her jaw clenched and the walls of the room bore down. Should she email the photographer, again, about the proofs, or would that be too pushy?

Laine, Maya’s mom, called to apologize for missing Pilates that morning.

“So are you still floating or has the letdown started to sink in?” Laine asked.

“In danger of letdown,” said Sharon, throwing the pungent, polish-stained cotton into the trash. “But the, uh, the photographer might swing by with a disk of proofs at the end of this week, so that will be a lift.”

“Your photographer seemed quite diligent. Not too tough on the eyes either,” she said. “That wavy hair and those lips.”

“I know, I know,” said Sharon.

“I think he had a little crush on you,” Laine ventured.

“Oh, really? Do you think so?” said Sharon, and stopped herself. Laine, a radio host by profession, had a big mouth. “I mean, I think it’s kind of his job to charm the mothers, right?”

“Well, you threw the best bar-mitzvah,” said Laine, with a trace of envy. “Like I was a kid again. Such a good idea, to have it be outdoorsy instead of another dance. Like I need to pull out my back doing the electric slide for the five-hundredth time.”

Sharon immediately began to memorize Laine’s words, to add to the list. (11.)

“And you were so—your personality is bubbly normally, but you were made for something like this. You were perfect,” Laine said.

People referred to her bubbliness a lot, didn’t they?

“So… I have to ask. Do you think our kids are making out, or what?” asked Laine. “I think Maya danced with Cam every time. That seventh grade slow-dance with the hands on the shoulders. Oy.”

Sharon closed her eyes. She had observed this, but swept it out of the way, behind her list of victories.

“Hello? I mean, your kid is adorable,” Laine blabbed on. “He’s such a good dresser and a little wit. I can see why she likes him.”

The buzzing of Sharon’s blackberry made her heart rate shoot upwards at an unusual rate. “It’s from him,” she said, her voice tight. “The photographer. Let me deal.”

His message, friendly and succinct, proposed Thursday afternoon to go over his batch of prints and choose a glossy memento book for Cameron.

Sharon examined her eyes in the mirror, wondered if she could do something about the shadows. Unlike her fellow seventh-grade moms, Sharon believed that manifestations of age on a woman’s face ought to remain indelible. From her theater background, this had stayed. Life left its imprint—a good thing.

Her proud moral stance, however, now found itself under siege by the juxtaposition of crow’s feet and a comely guest.

Bernie called to say he wouldn’t be home until late; he had a dinner with a partner, Francois. When Sharon, anxious, begged him to bring the partner around for a drink, he sighed and said the bar-mitzvah had ended.

“Let’s cool it with the entertaining for a bit,” he said. “It makes you needy.”

She slammed the phone down—not that it mattered. Beneath the sputter of her discontent, she knew Bernie appreciated her. He’d urged her to pursue theater even after their marriage meant that she’d never have to wait tables again, that she could open mail in a foyer the size of her old studio apartment. The nights he sat side by side with her, papers scattered across the kitchen table, scanning auditions, running lines, begging her not to spend the day at Bloomingdale’s. Sharon, Sharon, go to a matinee and get inspired. But by then, she hated attending shows alone, seeing the women onstage with flexible ligaments, throaty voices. Cameron’s friend Rina, the girl who sung for him, had trilled and belted in a way that made Sharon feel Rina would be among them someday, living the life that Sharon hadn’t.

Bernie had given her carte blanche to plan “Camp Cameron.” She took to it: no rent-a dancers, no women with belly rings exposed and men in polyester shirts, not for her. Instead she provided croquet, badminton, a lanyard table for the girls in their tottering heels. Well, this counted. Bernie had beamed with pride the entire day. (12.)

13. “It looks so…age-appropriate,” a mother with three face-lifts, the wife of a CEO, had said as she picked up her son. Because this woman had, for the first time, noticed Sharon’s existence, Sharon had chosen to view her statement as genuine, not backhanded, and thus a candidate for the list. She had created something lovely. She had bestowed upon the world a beautiful day.

Again and again, Sharon scanned over the email from the photographer. His words, did they posses a coy ring? He “truly” looked forward to seeing her again. Not much to go on.

That slim figure had shadowed Cameron, his equipment held in the air poised to capture each interaction. Click, click. A slim finger to his lips when he caught Sharon’s glance: don’t spoil the moment. His auburn curls, reminding her of the bohemian types she once scampered around with, before Bernie, framed a pair of light eyes—were they grey or hazel? Such eyes ought to be in front of the lens, not behind it.

Flushing, she fired off a reply confirming their meeting.

Cam came home at four, rather feral, his hair flopping over his eyes, his determined stride leading right to the fridge.

He demanded leftover cake, but she insisted on chopped veggies and ranch. They squared off over her marble counter-tops.

“Mom, I’m thirteen now. Wasn’t this weekend about me becoming a man?”

“Act like a man then. Make smart choices.” She put a finger to her temple and tapped twice.

“Fine, but lots of ranch. I’m going to Theo’s for dinner; we’re studying math.”

“Why not have Theo here?” asked Sharon. “I believe that on Saturday, while bouncing on a trampoline, he said you have a cool mom.”

“Yeah, I guess. But I also have a there mom, and he has an empty house,” said Cam. Sharon loved, and hated, her son’s frankness.

“Why do you need an empty house?” Her voice sharpened. She thought; drugs, drink, sex. Maya and Cameron an item? It seemed impossible.

Then she thought: seventh grade. Prank phone calls, more likely. Talking about which girls had bigger breasts. Maya would win, Rina lose that contest.

“Mom! It’s chiller. No one popping with snacks, and trying to tell hi-larious stories,” he said. She raised her hands to object: his friends used to love her snacks, her stories. “Stop waving your arms around, Mom.”

“Do five thank you notes and your English before you go,” she said, lowering her offending arms to her sides. “And rinse your dish. I’m not your maid.”

“Yeah but Consuela is,” he replied.

“Don’t be a smartass.” Her hands instinctively on her hips.

“It was a joke. Can I eat my snack without you up in my face?”

Ingrate. But her heart melted. His hand combing through his hair like a nervous girl. He was still so young. Not a man, not yet. They had it wrong. They should change it. Bar-mitzvahs at twenty, maybe twenty-five.

Sharon had contained his peers. None of the boys had dared steal wine, at her party. None of the couples had canoodled under her tables. Maya, that hussy-in-training, had to stick to dancing. None of the young women, their bra straps showing, had chosen this day to ostracize one of their own, to leave an unlucky member of the pack (sometimes Rina) marked with mascara and tears outside the ladies’ room. Still, she feared them in groups, their judgment, entitlement and budding sexuality, all arising from the lives waiting (farther than they knew) ahead of them.

Sharon heard Cameron at his desk, shifting his weight, flicking his lamp on and off. At her own computer, a ping: a new email from the photographer. She wasted no time clicking.

“Thinking about you,” he said. “Looking forward to maybe continuing our conversation…”

Dot dot dot. Now that had flirtatious overtones.

She picked up the phone to call Laine, but halted mid-dial. This situation with the photographer merited some discretion.

That sensation she had on the grass, that woozy knowledge that he understood her—why not chase it, why not try to feel it again, just once or twice, to ease the letdown?

As if the men in her family, her family of men, even cared whom she saw, as long as dinner arrived on the table when they wanted to eat it.

She saw the photographer’s eyes on her at the party, his lens pointed in her direction, felt the softness of his lips as he kissed her on the cheek to say goodbye. She forced herself to stop, a camera clicking in her mind. Just once or twice, she assured herself, to ease the letdown. Just once or twice. Just talking, browsing the negatives.

“That would be lovely,” she typed. “I can’t wait.”


He arrived twenty-three minutes late, two boxes in his hand. Consuela had seemed surprised when Sharon sent her off on errands earlier, declaring she had bar-mitzvah business to do in the house.

“Take it easy,” Sharon said with a too-chipper grin. “Get yourself a snack.” She’d handed her a twenty.

His hair appeared more sober than it had outside in the fresh air. It fell around his temples, his ears, in soft, short locks. Oh, soft, pretty things; they were Sharon’s undoing.

He pecked her on the cheek, as everyone in New York did, yes, but his lips stayed pressed on her skin an instant longer than they should have. She looked him square in the eyes, unafraid of a little fun. “It’s very autumnal today,” she said. “You should be out photographing instead of doing bar-mitzvah matron duty.”

“Bright sun isn’t always ideal for shooting,” he said. “Hey, why be so self-deprecating? You’re hardly a matron.” Either a too-slick, or justifiably appreciative response.

They sat at her desk—side by side on two swiveling desk chairs—and flicked through photos, all infused with the green of the grass, the electric blue of the balloons, the flowers. The light in the children’s eyes shone, their faces caught mid laugh, mid-song, mid-racing around the field.

“You made the colors pop,” she said. “It’s marvelous.”

“You made them pop,” he replied. “You picked the palette.”

“Well, maybe let’s thank the weather—such a crisp, dry day. Neither of us had anything to do with it, okay?”

They laughed. She filled out the bubbles on the sheet, selecting photos of each friend, each relative, each activity, with her trademark focused enthusiasm, yet always aware of his body, his breath, inches from her.

“You took too many pictures of me,” she said.

“The camera likes you,” he said. “Besides, you’re the artiste.”

There it was.

“You seem to have gotten that idea in your head. About me being an artist, I mean,” she twisted the pen cap around and around.

“Well,” he said, resting his cheek on his curled-up fingers. Such long, lovely fingers. “I guess you seemed to have a vision for Saturday. And you really are a magnet for the lens. You may not have noticed it, but you looked for the camera, too.”

“Oh I did?” she said. She ran both hands through her hair, then shook out the strands that weren’t grey, not yet. “I’m embarrassed now. Well, you’re quite the observer. So is this just a gig on the side of some larger project delving into human nature?”

“I do portraits,” he said. “And some landscapes and nature photography, too. I’ve done some small shows out on Long Island. I’d like to have a show in a SoHo gallery someday. I mean, I’d love it.”She put the forms, the pen, down on the desk and shifted around to face him, leaning out of her chair.

“Don’t give it up,” she said. “The gallery dream. Don’t let the money—from this—stop you.”

He clasped his hands together in a gesture of thanks. Beneath his shirt, his arms were muscular, lean. “I don’t do too many bar-mitzvahs,” he said. “Though I did give out my card to your fellow moms.”

“Oh,” she said. His winning demeanor merely a marketing ploy to drum up customers. “So Camp Cameron was good to you, huh?”

“Not unkind, no,” he said. “But I wanted to talk to you about the other half of my career, actually. You’ve been in front of a camera before, you said?”

He hurried through his proposal. “I’m doing this new project. A series of portraits. And, well, you kind of captured my imagination, Sharon, and if I may say so, you struck me on Saturday with something, your mix of vulnerability and control, if that makes sense. So I’m hoping, I’m hoping you’ll let me photograph you for this.”

A wide smile began to assert itself; she stopped it.

“I’m flattered. Where would that kind of a session take place?” she said.

“I have a studio. You know, this is, um, a serious artistic project. But you’re an artist, tight? You understand.”

She said yes, she had been an actress and a model, too, the latter just for the money. He leaned his chin forward on his hand and asked her why did she stop? Really, why?

“I had no talent,” she said.

“What made you believe that?” His enigmatic smile resurfaced: a smirk or simpatico. Who knew? Who cared? She put an elbow on the table, waved her hand back and forth a few times, gathering momentum. And then she spilled.

A point arrived after audition and audition and rejection and rejection when she knew: she was too earnest to portray weary, dissipated women, not tough enough to be a howler. She might make a saucy secondary character in a minor, if hilarious, farce or Shakespeare comedy, she said. Period. She had no profundity, no inner rooms of the soul.

Still, she recounted, years later, fully submerged in Bernie’s beguiling world of luxury, when she sat beside Cameron as a toddler, watching his smooth fingers brush the surface of an old headshot and say, “Mommy,” when together they gazed at her lustrous hair, her expression that still contained optimism, when she turned to her tiny son and said to him, wishing he’d understand, “oh, Mommy was beautiful, and she cared—she loved every minute of every play,” she had finally found herself approaching something authentic and sad. Her inner rooms had been uncovered, in vain.

“A what do you call it? A paradox,” he said. His mouth seemed serious, but his eyes… impossible to tell. “Are you sure you’re not just covering for the fact that you had a comfortable life, and it got too hard to keep pushing?”

“Not really,” she said, but his words stung. “I do have a good life, of course, my luck has been immense…but I also lack talent.” She sounded unconvincing. She wanted to sound unconvincing.

“Let me photograph you, Sharon,” he said. “My camera could find those inner rooms. Come to my studio next week, and bring back the CDs, and the form.”

“Oh—you have to go?”

“Afraid so. Cocktail party to shoot.”

Sharon offered him coffee, water, even a beer, but he demurred.

At the door, he put his lips to her cheek again, low, towards where her jawbone met her ear. He urged her to come by—let’s make it Monday, he said.

“I’ll be in the darkroom all day,” he said, and placed his card into her numb hand.


Cameron arrived home that night and found his mother sitting on the couch, in sweatpants, one of his dad’s beers in her hands, staring at the TV screen.

“Uh, mom, why are you watching ESPN?” he asked. “And what’s with the beer?”

She couldn’t even bother being flustered. “Um, the playoffs are coming?”

“You’re loco, mom,” he rolled his eyes, but she saw a drawing in of his eyebrows.

“Help yourself to whatever you want. Cake’s fine.”

His entrance preceded his father’s by an hour. Bernie breezed into the kitchen to join Cam, slowing only to raise an eyebrow at Sharon. Laughter, then the whir of the fridge left open could be heard as they stood and grazed without her help.

She nestled deeper into the pillows, took another swig of beer.

“Hon, where did you dig this headshot up?” Bernie called out. “I haven’t seen these in years. Look at your mother, Cam, from her acting days. You see why I fell for her when she seated me at the restaurant that night, right? A stunner. Even if she did come from New Jersey.”

“That’s gross, dad,” Cameron said. “Just gross.”

“You’re such a kid,” Bernie said, and she knew without looking that he would attempt to tousle his son’s hair and Cam would pretend to resist and then he’d giggle and they’d grapple, knocking against the kitchen. She heard the telltale laughs, grunts.

They came in, panting.

“What’d you make for dinner?” Cam asked. “I’m famished. How’s that for vocab, dad?”

“I got caught up planning your bar-mitzvah book,” Sharon said. “Go ahead and order pizza.”

“Are you serious? Awesome! Come on, Dad, help me choose toppings.”

Bernie turned to follow his son, shooting only one bemused look Sharon’s way.

Funny that her headshot brought Bernie back to that night they met. Her life changing before she could take stake of it—a gum-cracking girl from the Philly suburbs burned out from auditions waiting tables in a low-cut top, flirting with a rich customer because why not? The a week later came the sober realization that her future might be different, its long trajectory of struggling not written in stone.

They clicked, Bernie said. “I can’t believe it, but we do.”

She had been like the photographer then, before she fell for Bernie, when he struck her as just another guy in a suit, someone to chat up for the name of a producer, a meal or the next month’s rent. Her mind then had been crammed with the craft of acting. She had stayed up learning Ibsen, Pinter, Mamet.

Tonight she stayed awake, burning with the photographer’s offer. Monday. How would Bernie react if she told him she had an artistic soul and she planned to pursue modeling and, and what? Bernie would say the guy was ridden with clichés, coming on too strong, a hack striving to get onto the lucrative bar-mitzvah circuit. Bernie would say, “what does an artistic soul even mean?” Then he would say: Sharon, take classes, audition, work.


Monday came. She chose a dress—simple, black and breezy—and left her hair down. On the radio they dubbed it an Indian summer. Cam’s school said the term had racist origins, but one couldn’t deny the poetry of it. Out on Park Avenue, the leaves were ringed with gold and the sky had a deep purple undertone that only could belong to the autumn. And yet sultry air overwhelmed her as soon as she took a step onto the pavement. By the time she had ambled to 96th street, a film of sweat covered her face, her shoulders.

A strange tropical rain fell on and off among the rays of sunlight, sizzling on the pavement. The air pressed on her skull. She saw women mopping their brows, felt the nauseating blast of exhaust from the stores on Madison, their air-conditioners on for one last hurrah. She speculated as to whether Cam would go to the park for gym today, whether he’d get to practice his tennis serve.

How easily she had fallen into talking with the photographer, into telling him the truth—well, a version of it.

At 96th, she raised her arm to hail a cab, and then shooed the first one on. The cross-town bus lumbered towards her. Her course was set for the West Side, for an art studio. She would take public transportation like everyone else, like she had before Bernie and Cam, every day, up and down, back and forth.

She stepped in line and then panic assailed her as the people ahead of her fished out their Metrocards. She knew she had one. She dug through her purse, knocking up against compacts and eyeliner pencils and hand sanitizer, until she found the little yellow thing at last. She stood in front of the bus driver holding it up, her hand trembling, until he snatched it from her and inserted it himself. “Oh, oh my!” she exclaimed. “I’m so sorry.”

No one seemed to care.

She stumbled towards the back as the bus lurched away, anticipating entering the studio. Would she know what to do, how to look, where to look as he snapped away? Would his film capture the beads of sweat, the anxiety, across her face, the circles beneath her eyes? Would he ask her to take her clothes off? Would she? Did he intend to seduce her? Did she want him to?

Probably, of course, he just wanted to take pictures of her because she appeared sad, and middle-aged, and lost. She could see the book of photos on someone’s coffee table now: Bar-mitzvah Matrons.

Through the window of the bus, paused in traffic, she saw another rain shower moving sideways across the grass in Central Park, coming closer and closer, from third base of the baseball diamond to the mound, hitting the backstop and moving onto the road. Where was Cameron now? Running inside with his classmates, shouting about the rain? Kissing Maya, running his hand through his hair like a little teen idol, or tabulating his bar-mitzvah checks in his head? Wherever he was he had bounded out ahead of her, away towards adulthood and choices she couldn’t make on his behalf.

The droplets began to thud against the window of the bus. Steam filled the air as the storm swept past, so unexpected. So strange.

She touched the corner of her face and saw that moisture had streaked her cheeks, too. Tears for herself, for Cameron, for the things he would give up as she had done, give up and never get back.

At Central Park West and 97th, she exited the bus, jarring her foot on the last long step to the pavement. The stone façade of the church on the corner towered above her, marred by a big, loud banner, urging worshippers to come Pray With Us!

She stood there for a long time, staring at the photographer’s white business card, lying in her hand, curled from her heat.

A breeze blew the rain away, west towards the river and New Jersey. Sharon followed it.


 Read Sarah’s interview about “After the Bar Mitzvah,” and Joy Somewhere in the City.