Blue Coat by Dania Rajendra

The blue coat is slung over my arm, and I consider it against the long row of our walk-in closet. I do own four other coats, but this one was a gift from my once-closest friend Cue. I contemplate whether, at the landmark age of twenty-nine, I am now too old to wear fake blue fur. I hope not. I loved this coat so much that a few years ago, I paid a tailor at my neighborhood dry cleaning joint fifty bucks to reline it. Fifty bucks and he used the cheapest of polyester and didn’t even put in pockets! But he was an old Korean man, and the cashier taught me to say “thank you” in Korean so I could communicate my appreciation. “Kam-sam-me-dah.” It stuck.

Cue and I were so close, people mistook us for sisters. People even mistook us for one another. Sometimes, during the two years we overlapped at college, someone would pull my curls or rub my shoulders or otherwise approach me from behind then be surprised when I turned around or looked up and I was me and not Cue. “You have the wrong face!” someone once said in surprise.

She gave me the coat long before that night when, so drunk she could barely form the words, she grabbed my arm and implored me not to marry my fiancé. Her being right didn’t mean the damage to our friendship wasn’t lasting. Anyway, her blue fake fur coat was one of her trademarks in college. All our friends still associate the coat with her. We were such close friends that when I crashed her car and lacerated her spleen, she was still my friend. So I should probably forgive her for her ill-advised “intervention,” especially since I did, eventually, dump that fiancé. But now it’s been years and we’ve ossified our hurt and distance over ever-more infrequent drinks and Gmail chats. But we still try.

When we were closer, we thrifted together. One summer, we shared a falling-down house on St. Paul’s Selby Avenue with a bunch of other girls. That summer I crashed her car learning to drive on a two-lane highway that crosses the Iowa/Minnesota border. Those gravel shoulders can really send you spinning. The car went front-first into a culvert, flipping up on its nose before landing luckily on its wheels.

After our time at the Selby house, we moved, individually, back home to and again away from New York City. It was one of the times when we overlapped that she brought me home the coat, a trophy, a real prize. It was a thrift store find, just like her original version. I imagined her in a musty second-hand store in Nebraska, her eye drawn to the royal blue plush, her hand seizing it, her brain registering a sister coat for a friend as close as a sister, as close as we girls who don’t have sisters can get.

There was a time I wore the coat a lot. In an elevator in the garment district, a guy asked me what kind of fur it was. “Faux,” I replied, shocked anyone on Seventh Avenue in the twenties, of all places, could mistake it for a real pelt.

“What kind?” he asked again.

“Faux,” I repeated.

“What kind of animal is that?” he asked. It was a really slow elevator.

“Polyester.” I paused. “You know, it’s fake.”

“Oh,” he said. He was quiet the rest of the ride.

Should I ditch it? It’s not very warm. All my other coats are newer than this one, that is, both newer and newer to me. Its furriness reminds me of my late grandmother’s coat. I own it, but I’ve never worn it. It’s a real fur, but I don’t know what kind. It’s slinky, black, but the fur is hairy, not very soft. That coat is also too big for me; Grandma was easily an eight, maybe even a ten. She had a good five inches on me in the flat scuffs she sewed from remnants and wore in the house. Out, she wore great high-heeled leather boots, black. I also wear tall black leather boots, but I’m a size two. Even so, Grandma’s coat is something I wanted, something I specifically requested after she died.

I can’t remember her ever wearing it, but I remember her telling me about it. I was about twelve. The coat was a present from her mother, she said. My mom remembers her grandmother—my Grandma’s mother—as a stylish woman. I was about the same age when my mom donned her grandmother’s Russian Jewish accent to tell me, “A voman should not be seen viddout a chhhat.” The last word she pronounced with a guttural, Yiddish chhh. Like chutzpah. Or chazerai. Anyway, Grandma’s mother gave her the coat because a voman should have a good coat. Grandma was proud of her coat, but I think she didn’t wear it often because the significance of a good fur changed on her. It’s like those perennial stories—one ran in the Times recently—about the disappearance of men’s hats, and how hat makers blame JFK for ending the long era when no man was seen without one, because the president gave his 1960 inaugural address bare-headed. Anyway, by the time I was around and remembering, Grandma didn’t want to give off the “fur coat” lady kind of vibe, the I-live-on-the-Upper-East-Side kind of vibe. Grandma was a life-long soldier for the working class, and once lady soldiers no longer wore fur coats, neither did she.

She never wore it but she never got rid of it. It hung in her coat closet, and we saw it every time we visited. She never even put it in one of those cold fur storage places, which is for the best because we never, ever would have thought to retrieve it during those busy days after her death. We emptied her apartment and parted with as many of her belongings as we could bear, as quickly as we could. My mom seemed all about divestiture. I was only nineteen, still in college, still far away. Why were you so old when you had me? I wanted to ask my mother, who was twenty-nine when she lost her own beloved grandmother, but still seven years from birthing me. I had only a year left in college, I was so close to coming home and having more time with Grandma. I missed her while I was gone. I would call but she would hang up quickly, concerned about the cost of the long-distance charges. I sent her flowers, roses, for her birthday. She never got them—and they knew from the unclaimed roses drying outside her door that something was wrong. Someone from the hospital, or her building, contacted the florist, who called me. By then I was already on a flight home. She was dead before I landed.

I had been looking forward to coming home and being close again. The last time I saw her we sat on my parents’ couch and I hemmed my own pants, by hand. She had taught me how, but I was out of practice and my hem was very crooked. “Oh, Dani,” she said, disappointed at my poor skills, my uneven line. I wasn’t worried. I thought I would have more time for her to reteach me, and teach me all the things I was curious about but hadn’t yet asked about.

In the blur of the funeral arrangements and the dispersal of her stuff, so lovingly collected over so many years and so many trips abroad, so carefully saved, I remember a clear wish that I could have been older. So I would have had more time, yes, but also so I could have had the bedroom set. And the vast collection of carefully folded remnants that she intended to sew into something, the books of wallpaper samples that she made into notebook covers for us, the tins of buttons, her sewing machine. Instead of sitting shiva, we sorted and assigned and tossed, and discovered. We found, at the tops of the closets, things she had saved for my wedding. They were still in their original boxes, sometimes she had even wrapped the boxes in plastic. There was a silver-plated coffee urn. It all went. I ended up with the coat and some of the pillows she had made from the chosen few of the folded fabrics. Those pillows were much loved by my post-college roommates and me, and are now long destroyed. She once made me a coat, camel wool with gorgeous copper bell-shaped buttons that had filigree work, but I wore that out, too, and had to cut the buttons off and send the coat, with its shiny worn out patches, to Goodwill. God knows what happened to those pretty buttons. Now all I have left is one big purple platter, my memories, and that old fur coat, still hanging in my mother’s closet forty miles north of my Brooklyn apartment. That old fur coat that doesn’t fit.

And this blue one that doesn’t fit anymore.

This blue coat is the sister to the one Cue wore when she cabbed directly from the Minneapolis-St. Paul airport to the basement office of our college newspaper, where we were on deadline, staying up all night to put out the Mac Weekly. She arrived laden with plastic grocery bags lined with brown paper sacks, stuffed with plastic containers full of the food Ashkenazi Jews eat when we mourn: Pastrami and rye and good mustard. Babka. Soup chicken, separate from the soup. Before I lost my grandmother, Cue lost hers, also while she was exiled in the uber-goyishe state of Minnesota.

Before I went to college I was indifferent about my Jewishness. But explaining lox to my first Minnesotan boyfriend (“I thought it was some kind of bread product,” he said), realizing that I argue for fun and sport, knowing that I would never cross a picket line—hell, that I knew what a picket line was—it all made me realize I wasn’t only a New Yorker, I was a Jew. And not just a generic Jew, but a red-diaper-grandbaby Jew. I began—what else?—to study. (And to go to therapy.) I was already interested in this heritage, but when my grandmother died I felt my tether to my Judaism snap, and ricochet back at me.

Cue was raised Conservative, observant, out on Long Guyland (her real name is Alison). She was a good and generous Jewish guide. Together, we explored the Reform temple down the block from campus, and the ones further afield in Minneapolis. Two girls with dark curls, vintage dresses and rhinestone jewelry, we sat together in synagogue, and Cue whispered explanations and instructions, imparting important information missing from my un-templed upbringing. Out in Minnesota, we met for bagels and lox, or Montepulciano and sausage, and dreamed endlessly about moving back home to New York.

Once we did, Cue and I would make a point of getting together in September, making our resolutions for Rosh Hashanah over dim sum. Her parents, out on the Island, became the Jewish family that, in some ways, I never had. I spent Seders and Break Fasts with Cue’s parents, who were always accommodating, always explaining. I paid a shiva call when her other grandmother died. Thanks to Cue, I knew what to do, what to wear. I probably wore this blue fur coat. I know I brought kosher sweets, stayed just the right amount of time, mumbled Kaddish when the minyan assembled.

I started dating the man I would actually marry in late one spring, after Passover. When I told my mother about him and said his name, Jonathan, my mother didn’t stop to think. “Is he Jewish?” I think even she was surprised the question came out of her mouth. My own dad, her husband? Not Jewish.

“No,” I told her. “He’s another WASP.” I waited a second before I tossed out the trump card. “But he’s going to law school!”

“Thank god,” said my atheist mother.

It was always serious with Jonathan and me, and as summer turned into fall I knew I would have to show him real-deal Jewish observance. Hillel services at Columbia wouldn’t cut it. Though our friendship was now tepid, cooled by her unwelcome foresight about my ex-fiance, Cue agreed to ask her parents for help on my behalf. We were no longer close, but we remained loyal to our frayed tether, our history, our sisterhood. More loyal than some sisters.

Jonathan and I schlepped out to Long Island, to the temple where Cue had been bat mitzvahed. Where her parents probably still hope she’ll be married. As always, her parents were warm, welcoming, sweet and gently kvetchy.

Cue’s dad looked Jonathan over, tall and blue-eyed in his dark suit. Then Cue’s father clapped a yarmulke on his head. “If anyone asks why you’re not wearing a tallis…” he trailed off, trying to concoct something believable, but came up empty. He pulled a tallis off the rack and draped it over Jonathan’s shoulders. “Your name is Jonathan and you have a big nose. You’ll be fine,” he said, then sent us in so he could schmooze before taking his place on the bimah. And again we were entrusted to their “Ali,” my “Cue,” always a good Jewish guide. By this time, though, I already knew when to stand, the words to the prayers. Jonathan followed along but afterward, at the Breakfast table, he ate his pickled fish and bagels, his portion of babka without entering the verbal fray. He didn’t joust. That was then. He does now.

My blue fur coat is light on my arm. This one is probably from the early sixties, and it’s once again newly fashionable, because of its slightly short sleeves. It’s only been in the last couple winters I could buy gloves long enough to go with it, since the cropped-sleeve coat has come back, part of the retro resurgence that most prominently features 80s fashions. I’m old enough to remember when eighties fashion was fashionable the first time. That’s when Grandma would frequent tag sales, and make me things to wear. Once we moved to the god-forsaken suburbs, I was the only kid in the class photos with homemade clothes.

Thinking about Grandma’s coat makes me reevaluate my sad, relined polyester blue one. It’s hard to have anything that’s not disposable. My mother-in-law was a bit disappointed when we chose not to register for the traditional wedding stuff—fancy china and silver and all. We didn’t register because we have plenty of serviceable plates and stainless flatware. It seemed wasteful, and silly, to ask people to buy us fancy china when we liked my eBay- and Ikea-purchased plates just fine. At my first Christmas with my husband’s parents, we sat in their formal dining room and ate off Wedgwood plates with Kirk forks and knives. My mother-in-law rattled off the names of the patterns for me, Turquoise Florentine and Old Maryland, thirty-plus years after she and my father-in-law had received them. I admired them, and the engraved “H” on the silver for her then-new last name. But I didn’t change my name, so we’d have had to come up with a different idea for engraving if I had wanted silver.

Maybe I bought my plates off eBay because I was trying to buy back those things Grandma had wrapped so carefully and placed at the top of her closet for my eventual wedding. Those were the things I wanted to have. Those and a Jewishness that didn’t require observance. But you can’t bid on your own past, and those plastic-wrapped boxes are long gone. Though I’ve still got this blue coat, it won’t bring back those days I remember so fondly—before I moved to Brooklyn, when we were all neighbors uptown and my friendship with Cue was untarnished, before I almost married my ex and locked myself in a relationship that shrank me down to nearly nothing, when everything was a little more fun and a little less grown-up. When I could rock a fake blue coat without looking like I was trying too hard not to look like just another office-going grown up in a Midtown elevator, late for work.

In the end, I will relinquish the coat. I hope some other cool college student will spy it, buy it, and stick her hands into the pockets so many times she’ll have to pay a dry cleaner fifty bucks to reline it. I also resolve to call Cue and invite her out for a drink.


Dania Rajendra
Dania Rajendra writes in Brooklyn and Baltimore and in between on the Bolt Bus. When not inching along I-95 she is most often in her kitchen, baking pies and mixing Manhattans for her sweet Southern husband and their stream of houseguests. Stop by or see her stuff at daniarajendra.net.

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