“What do you mean, impossible?” I was holding my newborn baby and looking up at my husband. “One kiss, that’s all I’m asking.”
“You’re tameh. We can’t touch.” Meir stood and stretched his long, lumberjack arms above my hospital bed and held them just there. “You can feel this hug, can’t you? And don’t announce his name until after his bris. Seven days for the creation of the physical world, eight days for the spiritual one.”
I looked at him, then at the sooty skies of Brooklyn draped across the window, and then down at our son, whom I’d already named Boaz. A name with the letter B in memory of my friend, Brad McQuiston, who had died of AIDS eight years ago. Brad was tawny, blond, lithe; Boaz was dark and tiny and smelled like moist earth.
“So, after the bris,” Meir said, “where do you want to have the pigeon hopping?”
“The pidyon haben.” He smiled, revealing the space between his two front teeth I liked touching with my tongue. “Rabbi Baruch said a woman once called it a pigeon hopping. You know, the ceremony to honor a woman’s first-born son. You don’t have another child somewhere that I don’t know about?” Meir let out a laugh but his dark eyes scorched me.
“No.” I dropped my eyes and my baby’s face was now superimposed on another baby’s face, ghostly and indistinct. I tipped my head up toward Meir and said again, louder, “No.”
Before I married Meir, I always rode my Rollerblades to work. So what happened happened one July morning, not too long after Brad had passed on. It was a 3-H morning—hazy, hot and humid—and I spotted Schoolboy on the corner of Seventh Avenue cooing at me like a lover. But I’d made a vow to Brad before he died to stop smoking weed, so I skated right past Schoolboy, turning down 28th Street where the flirty, overgrown plants and trees made me feel as if I were in a tropical jungle. At Broadway, the DON’T WALK sign flashed.
Stopped right by a wall bordering a construction site, and that was where I saw a poster advertising a mysticism class. The Hebrew letters spelling Kabbalah whisked me back to Hebrew School and the gloomy foreign teacher who gave me a Hebrew name, Shoshana, because he felt sorry for me, a Jewish American girl without a name to bind me to my people. I hadn’t been to synagogue in almost 20 years, and as I stared, I suddenly remembered my old, secret name. I decided to take the subway to Brooklyn to attend the class the following night.
Rabbi Baruch Jablonsky had a monumental nose and little brown pebble eyes. He spoke with emphasis: His words fell like large stones into a lake. I listened, my mind unraveling, and suddenly I understood that all my glittery, reckless days and nights had conveyed me here: to this classroom containing no pictures, no decorations, nothing except for a blackboard with a sign: “The one who returns from a distance is greater than the one who has always been close.”
“When are you ready for a new beginning?” the rabbi asked, not waiting for an answer from any of the dozen students. “Think of a bean. A lowly lima bean. A nothing. But put it in the ground! One dead bean creates life.”
At the next class, he invited any/all of us (he made a cut in the air resembling a slash) for Shabbos with his family. Seven children, he told us, but always room for guests. After packing my bag on Friday morning, I stood in my doorway, looking around. I’d done little to transform my apartment: I lived like a nomad in a cave. I skated to work and asked my boss, Christopher Phegly, if I could leave at five that day instead of the usual nine o’clock.
“There are dozens of other graphic designers who’d jump at the opportunity to work here,” said Phegly, a pudgy Englishman with a fold of skin hanging over his collar.
“I’ve never even—”
“—gotten your MFA,” Phegly said. “Just this time.”
“Thanks!” I walked away before he changed his mind.
“Phegly actually said you could leave?” whispered Louise, looking up at me from her computer screen, her reddish hair pinned down flat. She was also in her early 30s, unmarried, unmoored. “What did you have to do—promise you-know-what?”
“I planned my request right after his boozy lunch.”
“Brilliant,” Louise said.
When I arrived at the rabbi’s door later that afternoon, a girl who couldn’t have been more than twelve opened it, emancipating the smells of burnt toast, onions, laundry detergent. She was wearing a navy-blue long-sleeve shirt and a long navy-blue skirt. “I’m Ruth,” she said. “Not Ruthie. And you are…?”
Behind her, I saw a dining-room table was covered in white like a bridal gown. “I am…” Sweaty and exposed, I wanted to say, and painfully aware that my short yellow cotton skirt and zebra-print shirt were way off. How come Rabbi Baruch hadn’t warned us to put on appropriate attire?
“Who?” Ruth asked again.
“Jessica,” I said. “Jessica Dallis.”
“What you’re wearing…”
“I know.” I turned and walked down the stairs, the sun sinking, its thick heat still pressing on my shoulder blades, my palms, my ears. Again I remembered, from years ago, leaving the inn in Portland where I’d gone to meet my boyfriend, Terence. We’d staged a fake football game in our room—he was linebacker to my quarterback—and then made love, and right after that, he told me it was unethical. Because of his wife.
“Do you have it in your heart to forgive me, baby?” he asked as I got dressed in the dim light.
“I don’t deserve this!” I slammed the door and left the inn, but riding on the train away from Maine, I thought that maybe I did deserve this, the defeat that came with trying to beg someone to care for me. The train couldn’t reach New York fast enough.
“The only man I know who ever left his wife for another woman was your father,” my mother told me the next afternoon in her apartment—the one she’d moved to after my father had split. She was sitting in the kitchen on her favorite chair surrounded by newspapers and stock certificates.
“I came here because you were supposed to make me feel better.”
“So come back when I’m cheery,” she said, “which means I won’t see you for a while.”
“And give it all up already.” I stared down at a yellowing certificate from some uranium company. “Those papers are from 30 years ago.”
“I should let her get everything?” my mother said, and the bitterness in her eyes filled me with so much desolation that I sprung out of my seat like a rocket. I told my mother I’d pick up deli for dinner, escaping before her first vodka. Before I had to listen to the terrible crash of ice against glass.
Now I reached the steps, and Ruth ran after me, intercepting me, taking my suitcase like a bellhop. “Don’t go,” she said. “We have time before Shabbos to get you something to wear.”
She placed my bag in the hallway of her house, closed the door behind her, and led me to the sidewalk. Brooklyn was blanketed with heat, leaves curling in exhaustion, air-conditioning units dripping, condensation gathering on the bakery windows. The entire city was sweating.
We stepped down three steps into Malkie’s. The coolness in the shop was a relief. Ruth circled the clothes racks, pulling out blouses and skirts as if I were the rebellious daughter and she were the mother, the same way my mother used to shop with me, urging me into clothes I hated—as if forcing me to wear extra layers of heavy skin.
“This really is not going to work,” I said. Ignoring me, Ruth gestured toward an empty communal dressing room and closed the curtain, leaving me alone.
I reluctantly tried on a pleated brown skirt that hit the most unflattering part of my calves and a cream-colored blouse of questionable material. “You’ll see how bad this is!” I called, whisking the curtain open.
“But you look so pretty,” Ruth said.
“Yeah, sure, thanks, anyway.” I closed the curtain again.
“You can wear the clothes right out of the store!”
I stood there for a long moment, desperate and lost, looking in the mirror at this, this person staring back at me, but the idea of returning to my lonely apartment made me feel even worse.
“Shabbos is coming!” Ruth said. “Let’s go!”
I didn’t have the energy to argue. I paid for the clothes and stepped out of the shop. On the street, the strangest thing happened: Nobody looked at me twice. Rollerblading through Manhattan, I noticed that people often stopped to follow my gangly frame, my wild hair flying behind me like dark wings. But I blended in with the last-minute shoppers and the blue sky fading, the clouds turning pink, and the smooth velvety hush as the Sabbath rose all around us.
Rabbi Baruch sat at the head of the dining-room table, long as a shuffleboard court, three guys about my age clustered around him. Ruth and her five siblings sat in the middle section; I was at the other end with the rabbi’s wife, Hannah Esther, a plump, jaunty woman in a loose black caftan, a silver-threaded scarf wrapped around her head.
“This next prayer is in honor of my wife,” the rabbi said, casting an earnest glance at Hannah Esther.
I looked at the English translation in my prayer booklet—A good wife who can find? She is more precious than corals—as Hannah Esther held out a spoon and whispered, “Open up, bubbeleh,” to the baby propped in the high chair next to her.
Another prayer, then sweet red wine. The rabbi explained, “The table is our altar,” and after reciting another blessing, we ate doughy challah sprinkled with salt.
“Ruth, please watch Menachem Mendel,” Hannah Esther said, standing. Since I was the only other woman at the table, I thought it made sense to follow her through the swinging door. In the kitchen, scents of countless meals hung in the air. Knife scratches in the countertops, bibs hanging from cabinet knobs, children’s plastic dishes stacked on the table. Hannah Esther stood at the stove, dipping a long ladle into a pot of soup.
Until that moment, I hadn’t known what to do with my life—it was like staring at a blob of clay—and suddenly, I knew. I knew. “You’re only a few years older than me and you have all this,” I said.
“That’s why I love having guests, because they remind me of all I’ve been given,” Hannah Esther said, arching her plucked eyebrows upwards, as if God was overhead, like a ceiling sconce. “Sometimes I get so caught up in the everyday that I forget.”
One of the boys ran in and a smaller kid chased him, yelling, “Yehuda stole my challah!”
“I did not!” the bigger boy said, both of them dressed like miniature men in white button-down shirts and black pants.
“Guys, enough! Run back as fast as you can and you’ll be the first to get soup!” Hannah Esther smiled at me, dimples blossoming in her cheeks.
After the soup, I brought out platters of broiled chicken, overcooked string beans (“Oops, I forgot about them,” whispered Hannah Esther), and boiled potatoes. The baby was whimpering and Hannah Esther ate quickly, and when the baby really got going with his operatic wails, she picked him up, took one last bite of chicken, and opened the prayer book. I watched her mouth the prayers in an undertone like a bus going up a familiar road. She nodded at her husband, then me, and disappeared upstairs.
“An amazing snowy story I’ve got to tell you on a summer night,” Rabbi Baruch said, wiping his shaggy moustache and beard with his napkin. “About a rebbe who brought wood to an old, sick woman somewhere in the Old Country. Brought the wood, and the woman said, ‘But, rebbe, I have no money to pay you now.’
‘Don’t worry,’ the rebbe said. ‘I’m willing to trust you. And if I am willing to trust you, someone who is frail and weak’” The rabbi turned in my direction. “Then you can trust God who is almighty and everlasting.”
The next morning, I found Hannah Esther in the kitchen feeding the baby while Ruth sat at the table, chewing a pink candy bracelet around her wrist.
“Don’t you go to synagogue?” I asked Hannah Esther after I poured myself a cup of tea.
“By the time I get everyone dressed…” she laughed. “I don’t have to find God there when He’s everywhere. But Ruth can take you.”
We left the house. It was another 3-H day, but this time with muggy thrown in, and the streets were quiet. When Ruth and I reached the synagogue, we climbed the stairs to the women’s balcony. The men were praying down below, and a curtain blocked our view. I might as well have been in an elevator shaft.
“We can’t see anything,” I said.
“There’s nothing to see.” Ruth took another bite of her candy bracelet. A few women were praying, some were whispering, and when a girl next to Ruth yanked on her pigtail, Ruth elbowed her back.
I reached for a tattered prayer book, some of its pages torn out and then stuck back in, making it look like a telephone book. I stared at the Hebrew letters, recognizing the Shin resembling a deity with three arms raised and ready for an embrace. I wasn’t sure what the words meant, but I could read them, my mouth shaping the soothing sounds.
A murmur rippled through the crowd below; then came loud clapping and stomping.
“What’s going on?” I asked.
Ruth shrugged. “A rabbi or something.”
Voices swelled all around me, the sounds grew louder, and I suddenly felt so alone. Nobody in that whole place could ever understand all the empty moments, the mistakes, and the regrets of my life. I looked out the window, the sky a woolen smudge. The men were singing—na, na, na, na, na—and I thought of how Rabbi Baruch had said that only Moses had ever seen the face of God. I shut my eyes tight. I expected to find darkness, but instead I saw fireworks on the back of my eyelids, and bands of white light beckoning me, taking me in. Not letting me go.
‘Three stars out!’ shouted one of the boys, running into the house the following night. “Three stars!”
All afternoon, I’d played Rummikub with Ruth and some of the other kids while Hannah Esther rested and took care of her baby. Time was fluid, meandering, and soon after twilight wandered in and night followed, Rabbi Baruch returned from synagogue and lit a blue-and-white braided candle.
“Hold the candle as high as you want your husband to be,” Rabbi Baruch told me, as all the lights in the room went dark.
I lifted the candle like a torch and in the dusky light, one broad face with nightwalker’s eyes stared back at me.
A prayer was said, a silver filigree box passed around, and as I brought the box up to my nose, I breathed in the smell of cloves and looked at that pillar of a man. Like that time the sun came up after I’d danced all night with Brad. We were high on mushrooms and he hadn’t yet been diagnosed with AIDS and we made love on the roof of his apartment building—that one time because it was right after the Terence fiasco and he had just broken up with his boyfriend, too—and I’d watched the dawn unfolding, feeling as if I could melt into the orange fusion of the sun. Right now I had the same feeling. My body had been snapped in two and radiance poured in.
The candle was extinguished, the lights went on, and the guy appeared next to me, asking in a quiet voice if he could walk me home.
“It would be a very long walk back to Manhattan,” I said. “And I have a suitcase.”
He smiled, the space between his front teeth revealing itself. “Coffee, then. We’ll go around here, then I’ll take you home.”
I said ‘Liz Shein.’ He said “Rick Gottlieb.”
We were playing Jewish Geography—he grew up one town over from me on Long Island—as we walked to Coney Island Avenue, shopkeepers heaving up metal shutters and lights going on, one by one.
Then Meir told me his real name. “I used to be Matt,” he said.
“I’m Jessica,” I said. “I’ve always been Jessica.”
“Don’t you have a Hebrew name?”
“Shoshana.” I told Meir about my Hebrew School teacher, and how I’d asked my mother why she hadn’t given me a Hebrew name: She said the whole idea was backwards.
“But Shoshana’s a nice name.”
“Maybe for someone born around here,” I said as a pregnant woman pushing a stroller with three kids sitting in a row like a commuter train passed by. Heat clung to the evening, and a fine layer of perspiration beads clung to my upper lip, above the pink lipstick I’d carefully applied before I left the rabbi’s house. “But I never experienced Shabbos before. The way Rabbi Baruch sang that song to his wife—and so many kids.” I pushed away the memory of a nameless baby who might have been Brad’s or Terence’s, I wasn’t sure which, and a deep sense of grief rolled through me.
But Meir didn’t notice. “And the way they counted stars,” he said, opening the door for me at Tammy’s Pastry Shop.
The place was old-timey, with ten tables and background muzak suitable for an ice-skating rink. We ordered two teas and decided to share a Napoleon, which the bald waiter called a crème-shnit.
Meir told me that after studying music at Oberlin, he took a backpacking trip through India. “I spent a month meditating in an ashram,” he said. “I thought I’d stay but it didn’t feel right. I came back and started working in a plant store that sold hydroponic equipment in Williamsburg. The religious guys turned me off until six months ago when a friend introduced me to Rabbi Baruch. That first Shabbos at his house, I was hooked. I couldn’t go back to my old life. I quit my job. I’m studying now. I feel like I finally have the boots I need to climb the mountain.”
“Hannah Esther is really nice but she doesn’t look like she’s climbing any mountain.”
“You have a soul that needs stretching.” Meir stared at me as if he saw something I could not see inside myself. My heart beat fast against my chest.
“What’s your story?” he asked, after our order came.
I told him how my father had left my mother in—literally—one day when I was in tenth grade. I got off the school bus, walked into my house, and saw the empty spaces on the walls: Gone were my father’s law degree, his college diploma, and his favorite paintings. Gone were the books he was reading for his adult-ed philosophy class (it turned out he had fallen in love with another budding philosopher), his golf clubs, and his chess set.
“I’d never do that to my wife and kids,” Meir said, and I was so moved that I reached for his arm and accidentally knocked over his tea, spilling it on my new skirt.
“Waiter!” Meir’s hand shot up. “Could you bring us something to wipe up the mess?”
“You have more than enough napkins,” the waiter said.
“But they’re for…” Meir paused. “My friend here!”
“You want to be a nudge, be a nudge!” the waiter said. “Your father was probably a nudge, his father before that, from generation to generation—”
“We don’t need the whole spiel!” Meir said, his voice so loud that the coffee shop stopped for a moment. But Meir didn’t care—he held my eye.
After he paid the bill, we rode the subway, our knees rattling against each other’s. It started to drizzle as we walked along 28th Street. The plants and flowers and trees were packed away, Schoolboy had vanished, and the city lay tranquil, stationary; only some insects chased one another in the flannel light coming off the street lamps.
At my building, Meir climbed the five flights to my apartment with me. I opened the door and stopped: I could feel the force field vibrating between us.
“I don’t believe in physical relationships before marriage,” Meir said. “Once I had—I’m sorry to say—sex with a girl, and afterwards, I told her I wanted to buy some cigarettes. I went out, saw some of my friends and completely forgot about her—and we’d just been together. It has to be special. What about you?”
I didn’t tell him about Brad. I didn’t tell him about Terence. “How will you know it will be good between us?” I asked.
“I already know.” His eyes locked with mine. “I could tell the moment I noticed you holding the candle.”
“Not during the dinner the night before?” I asked. “I didn’t even notice you. Can you tell these aren’t the clothes I would ordinarily wear?”
“Everyone wears a uniform,” Meir said. “Punks wear one. Monks wear one. I used to look like a hippie, and now I wear black pants and a white shirt. What’s the big deal? I’m burned out from searching. Once I find what I want, I don’t let go.”
We married in Rabbi Baruch’s office two months later. We didn’t want to juggle my mother and my father and his second wife and Meir’s parents, so we asked Rabbi Baruch and two other rabbis to be our witnesses. I’d always wondered about life as a blonde: Since I had to cover my hair as a married woman anyway, I bought a wig with golden tresses. Right after the ceremony, I called my mother.
“Maid Marion gets married and can’t even invite her own mother?”
“Mom, it would have been so weird with all of you—”
“What’s weird is believing in something that doesn’t exist,” she said. “Was the way I brought you up that bad, that you had to get religious?”
“Just because I want this way of life doesn’t mean it’s your fault.”
“Not to get one dance at my daughter’s wedding?”
“We didn’t even dance,” I said.
That night, I stood in the bedroom of our new apartment. I’d been to the mikveh, the ritual bath, and Meir had pushed our new twin beds together, train tracks reunited. He pulled up my cotton nightgown, staring at my body. “I am my beloved’s,” Meir said, his lips making a damp trail down to my belly. “And my beloved is mine.”
‘Mom,’ I said, “Could you please pass me another chocolate turtle but with pecans this time?”
“I’m taking them away from you.” My mother was sitting next to my hospital bed. “He can eat all he wants.” She lifted her clouded face toward Meir, who was standing at the foot of the bed. “Me, I wear it. But it doesn’t matter anymore—who’s going to see me naked? Not your father—”
“Mom!” I glanced at Meir’s parents by the window.
“I still don’t see the draw,” Meir’s father said, his brown eyes brassy as keys, his thin lips pulled tight. “When I was growing up in Brooklyn, all I wanted was to escape from Brooklyn.”
“I don’t understand it, either,” said Meir’s mother, holding my newborn baby. She had dyed auburn hair and a pinched face. “But the baby looks just like you did, Matt.”
“It’s Meir, Ma.”
“I’m sorry, honey,” she said. “I keep trying but don’t you think it’s hard? I’ve called you Matt your whole life.”
“And you didn’t have a problem when I used to write it on your checks,” Meir’s father said.
“That was before,” Meir said.
“Like Jesus,” my mother said. “Before Converting and After Death.”
“Mom.” I stared at her. “I’m sorry, everyone, but the party’s over. I really need to rest.”
Meir stayed after they’d all left, then asked me about the ceremony for our firstborn child. I hesitated. From the nursery just down the hall, I imagined I heard babies crying: some strong, some mangled, some so tiny they could barely pump their own hearts. In my mind, my first baby appeared: Brad or Terence’s baby.
The one I had to let go.
A crinkling sound woke me three weeks later. Was Boaz wrapped in cellophane, trying to burst loose? I jumped out of bed, but he was asleep in the bassinet, his behind raised in the air like a tadpole. Meir had tied a red ribbon around the baby’s wrist to ward off the evil eye. I bent over the bassinet, folding myself all the way over, my head hovering above Boaz’s torso, checking to make sure he was still breathing.
Then I heard the scrunching again. I walked into the kitchen where Meir sat, peeling back the cellophane from inside a photo album, pulling out pictures.
“Meir!” I grabbed the album. “What are you doing? That’s mine!”
“We can’t have things like this around here,” he said. “You in that figure-skating outfit. How is our son going to find a girl from a good family when you used to look like a Rockette?”
“I was nine years old!” I held the album to my chest. “What’s wrong with you?”
“Shoshana,” Meir said. “We’re walking up this mountain together, and I want to reach the top with you.”
“I’m Jessica,” I said.
“Once I opened this door, I shut the door on my past,” Meir said. “I don’t want to be reminded. It’s too great a temptation for our kids. We have to build a fence around our new life.”
“But that doesn’t mean wiping everything away as if it never existed.” I glanced at the clock on the stove. It was 3:07 in the morning. I opened the refrigerator and stood there with the door open. I didn’t know what I wanted to eat, but even the whole cheesecake in there didn’t seem like enough.
“If you need to stop drinking,” said Meir behind me, “you pour out the Sangria, you don’t keep it around.”
“Those are photos.” I took out the cake and cut myself a generous slice. Then I sat across from Meir and opened my album, looking at a photo of Brad and me at a party somewhere downtown. I was wearing a strapless dress. I had shoulders that I used to show off in public and a cleavage that sunk deep. “You’re like my mother, Meir. She wanted me to rip up photos of my father, too, after their divorce. I didn’t do it for her, and I’m not doing it for you.”
“This was lying around on the living-room table.”
“I was looking at my old baby pictures.”
“I don’t want our son to grow up with any doubts about who he is,” said Meir. “I want him to be sure of his place on earth. I don’t want him to have to go through all the stuff I went through.”
“He still might grow up to want to play baseball—or even strip poker.”
“I should never have told you that story.” Meir’s face reddened in every spot where his beard was not.
“You know what I wish?” I said.
“Turn to God,” he said.
“I wish you’d hug me. I’m so lonely for a hug. How long do I have to wait for a hug from you?”
“Until there’s no blood, plus seven more days,” he said. “I’m never alone when I’m with God. Really with Him. What’s a hug from me compared to a hug from God?”
“I’ll hug Him after I hug you,” I said. “A little foreplay.”
“That’s not funny.”
“You’re building a brick wall.” I moved around the table and kneeled beside him. “I believe, too, but one time, can’t we just—?”
“No,” Meir said. “I’m no longer the hippie with the harmonica. If I do one thing wrong, it will be easier the next—”
“You’re scared,” I said. “That’s why you’re so rigid. I bet Rabbi Baruch has hugged Hannah Esther once or twice in emergencies, even when she’s impure.”
Meir picked up a photo of himself in a Little League uniform and ripped it in half.
“Don’t!” I pleaded. “That photo explains why I wanted to be with you. Because we understood each other.”
Meir tore the photo again.
Boaz cried out. I went into our bedroom, scooped him up, and nursed him, trying to figure out a plan. Disorganized light, then gray light, then yellow light trundled back the night. After Meir left for his job at Greenspan’s Florists, I packed a bag, dressed Boaz, and took the subway to my old office.
Everyone crowded around as I held Boaz in my arms.
“Congratulations,” Phegly said. “I see you’re not returning to work soon—and when you do, your knowledge will be outdated.”
“That’s okay, I have new knowledge about life,” I said, but Phegly had already walked away.
Louise hugged me. “You better not come back.” Then she introduced me to my replacement, a skinny girl with crimson red lipstick, who made me feel matronly and old and very fat.
“Let’s go out to lunch,” Louise whispered after the others went back to their desks.
We walked over to the Argosy. Louise sat down at our favorite table by the window, and I went to the bathroom because Boaz had started to cry. I locked the door behind me and caught my reflection, inexplicably unfamiliar, in the mirror. Instead of the Maid Marion wig, I’d decided on an artsy blue scarf, but the edges had come undone, and I tucked them back in, as if remaking a messy bed. I laid Boaz down on the diaper bag between the sink and toilet as someone knocked on the door.
“One minute!” I called, then lowered my voice. “Don’t cry, little man, it’s not so bad.” But his diaper had leaked all over his clothes, and that made me channel my mother’s voice, hissing, “Tell him if he thinks it’s bad now, it only gets worse.”
Boaz wailed as I threw his diaper in the bin and hurried him into new clothes. I somehow managed to balance him against me afterwards so I could pee and wash my hands.
“What the hell are you doing in there?” blasted a man’s voice on the other side of the door.
“I’m really sorry!” I said, opening it.
“Some of us have to work,” the man said.
I joined Louise at the table. She’d already ordered us two Greek salads. I draped a shawl over my shoulder and nursed Boaz.
“I’m so happy for you.” Louise gave my hand a squeeze by the napkin dispenser. She wore thick black eyeliner that made her pale blue eyes seem even paler.
“Are you seeing anyone?” I asked.
“Nobody special,” she said. “You’re not missing anything.”
“But I miss it,” I said quietly. “I miss the excitement. The energy. Going out after work, drinking Margaritas.”
“It was smart of you to give it all up for Manischewitz.”
“Louise,” I said, “I have to get this off my chest and I’m choosing you.”
“I’m not one of the chosen people.”
“I’m supposed to do this firstborn ceremony for Boaz next week,” I said. “But sadly, I had an abortion, which means that Boaz is not considered my firstborn, and I don’t know how to tell Meir.”
“First things first.” Louise spoke slowly, which was pretty much the way she did everything. “Who was the father?”
“Either Brad, my friend who died of AIDS, or Terence, remember? That married guy.”
“I couldn’t have kept that baby,” I said. “I hated myself so much, I couldn’t have loved the baby inside me.”
“We do such bad things to ourselves.”
“Meir doesn’t know one-tenth of the things I’ve done,” I said. “He thinks God is watching us when we’re making love.”
“God would never join a ménage à trois.”
Louise was the only one who could make me laugh when I wanted to shrivel up and die. “What exactly is that ceremony?” she asked.
“Firstborn sons were spared from the tenth plague,” I explained. “So your firstborn son is special. If you had a miscarriage or an abortion, then you can’t have the ceremony, and Meir will be so disappointed. But if I decide not to tell him and have the ceremony anyway, then I’m being irreverent about things he takes so seriously.”
“I think you should take the risk and tell him.”
“He loves the me I am now. Not the me I once was. I wish I could run away.”
My father had an apartment off Columbus Avenue, but the second wife and the new kids were there, and I didn’t want to go to my mother’s. Through the window, I watched an elderly woman reach the curb of the street. The sun struck her face and she squinted, as if stopped by a sudden, blinding question.
“You can stay at my place.” Louise picked up our lunch bill. “I’m not expecting anybody—unfortunately.”
Taxis screeched down Broadway. Sunshine, commuters, a taxi honking. I’d forgotten ordinary life: I’d forgotten it still went on. I walked uptown and Louise stayed with me, the warm air turning warmer, like soup on the stove. That made me think of Hannah Esther and I imagined what she was doing right then: burping her newest baby or bringing a beef stew to a sick neighbor or gathering her kids’ dirty socks off the floor like a farmer harvesting his crops.
“I’ll be okay,” I said. “You should get back to work.”
“I’ll tell Phegly I don’t feel well,” she said. “I haven’t played hooky in years.” She walked by my side, moving up the street, her mismatched Converse high-tops—one blue, one plaid—springing off the sidewalk in determination. We walked past a billiard shop and a church with medieval spires. The baby didn’t stir in his carrier against my chest: He was listening to my heartbeat, more familiar to him than his own.
Louise lived in her father’s old apartment on First Avenue—she’d moved back to take care of him before he died a few years ago.
“Oh, your dad’s armchair,” I said, remembering her father sitting there, glancing up from his carefully folded newspaper. On the leather seat cushion, I could almost see the impression of her father’s shadow.
“I have to get out of here,” Louise said. “It’s pathetic to live in the place you grew up. Aren’t you going to call your husband and tell him where you are?”
“I don’t know what I want. I want to see what it would be like—you know, to live on my own.”
Louise opened the door to the hall closet, containing a couple of overcoats, a pair of rain boots, an umbrella. “This is what it would be like,” she said.
We watched Star Trek reruns and, much later, ordered Chinese food, arranging the white cardboard boxes on the coffee table and opening them like presents.
“Ah, the comforting smell of vegetable lo mein,” I said, reciting a blessing before I ate.
Louise reached for a cigar box, took out some weed, and rolled a joint, slowly licking both ends. “Want some?” she asked.
“I can’t—the baby. Bad enough he’s imbibing non-kosher food through my milk. But I don’t think it would be so dangerous if you blow in my direction.”
“It takes the edge off.” Louise leaned back, dragged hard, shot the smoke my way.
I wanted to talk more but after a time, Louise’s head dropped onto her chest and her mouth fell open, revealing crooked bottom teeth I’d never noticed before.
I nursed Boaz, who lay on my chest like a warm puppy. I nodded off, too, and when he woke me, I nursed him, burped him, and held him. Yet he kept crying, so I walked back and forth in the living room, rocking him, and then I took out the small prayer book that Meir had given me. I prayed for Boaz to stop crying, for Louise to find someone, and for Meir and me—though I wasn’t sure if that meant together or apart. Finally, Boaz fell asleep and when I woke in the morning, Louise had already left. There was a note in the kitchen. “I’m sure it was someone else’s baby who kept me up all night. Ha-ha! Stay as long as you want—here’s an extra key.”
The day was 3-H minus the muggy and on the bright side. I bought coffee and a bagel and sat by the East River, watching the runners, bicyclists, and dog walkers pass by. A loose trail of puffy clouds dotted the sky. I pictured myself living alone somewhere, going to a park to meet other mothers—single mothers, divorced mothers, widows. Then I thought of my other life: rushing to finish cooking before Shabbos began, listening to Meir explain a Biblical passage to another ex-hippie with soulful eyes, and trying to pray in the noisy synagogue balcony. A barge moved up the river. I’d run out of diapers, I’d eventually have to get my things, and I didn’t want Meir to file a police report, so I took the subway to Brooklyn.
“You’re back,” Meir said as I stepped inside. “How could you have just left like that?”
I looked at his tired face, then at the late-morning sun pouring into the apartment. Stripes of light on a slant; motes of creation floating through the air. Was God inside those particles? Was God everywhere, like Hannah Esther had said? Was God anywhere?
“I was trying to clear my head.”
“And did you?”
I knew what I wanted to say. I watched as the room darkened: Clouds filled the sky, as if the sun were hiding its face above Ocean Parkway. I breathed in, out, and then spoke. “I can’t have the pidyon haben.”
“I wasn’t going to tell you at first so we could still do the ceremony, but I can’t do that to you.”
“Do you want to tell me why we can’t have it?”
I hesitated, the weight of the baby against me. Nine months carrying him inside: Outside, I couldn’t believe how heavy he was.
“You know what?” Meir’s voice softened. “Don’t tell me. In the Bible, God told Adam to name the animals. Once Adam named them, they existed. Let’s not give anything a name. What was, was. It’s over.”
“I’m really sorry.” I stared up at my husband, aware that what I had already lost was bumping against what I might lose again. “What will you tell the rabbi?”
Meir shrugged. “He always says that your wife’s honor is as dear to you as your own. I’ll say you had a miscarriage before Boaz, even if the months we’ve been married don’t add up. The rabbi understands more than you think he does.”
“And do you?”
Meir closed his eyes, his mouth moving, his lips crafting prayers, silent and indecipherable.
“I want you to love me the way you love God,” I said.
“Religion is a discipline. If you pick and choose, then it isn’t religion.”
“You give in to God. Why can’t you give in to me?”
“It’s a different love.”
“Then I better go.” I moved past him into our bedroom, pulled out a suitcase, and reached for the skirt and shirt I’d bought with Ruth, and then all the other modest clothes that possibly belonged to someone else.
Meir appeared in the doorway, watching me.
“You know what’s the worst thing?” I glanced at Meir. “Facing my mother, who’ll say, ‘I told you so.’?” I paused. “I can’t take everything with me now, so I’ll come back to get the other stuff and we’ll figure out how to divide—”
“Multiply,” Meir said.
“‘Be fruitful and multiply.’ I don’t want to divide our things.”
“Don’t worry, I’ll only take what’s mine.” I imagined standing with the suitcase and the baby and knocking on my mother’s door. She’d push the newspapers to the side of the kitchen table and say that since I was nursing the baby, she might as well nurse a drink. Each night, we’d watch TV and I’d slowly become her, lying to myself that it no longer mattered.
“Jessica, no,” Meir said. “Please, don’t go. Don’t do this. All last night, I couldn’t sleep. I had no idea where you were, it drove me crazy. When I heard the key in the door—”
“So hold me then,” I said. “Hold me while I’m still impure.”
Meir glanced at me, startled, and his eyes fell.
I stood there, waiting for my life to go either this way or that. And I was unafraid. Was that what believing in God meant? The clouds rolled off the sun like a lover who is done, done, done. At the same time, light breathed into the room like on the first day of creation, and the space within my soul deepened and widened, completely my own.