Tag : Marriage

April 2, 2019 by

Fiction: What Forgiveness Might Look Like

Art: Ofri Cnaani

Art: Ofri Cnaani

Dana and her husband, Jonathan, stand next to each other on a footbridge, separated by a loaf of stale bread and a gulf of regret. Below them, a few dozen members of their congregation lace the shoreline of Rock Creek. Save for Dana and Jonathan they are either families with children or gray-haired empty nesters.

The first year they were married, Jonathan had pulled her along to the tashlich service, the symbolic casting away of sins at the start of the Jewish new year. The ceremony, in which bits of bread are thrown into a body of water, didn’t move Dana the way it moved Jonathan. As far as she could see, they were both good people without much to apologize for. She wasn’t too stressed about her name being inscribed for another year into the Book of Life, whatever that meant. Jonathan had said it was a nice excuse to take a break from the busyness of life, to experience a sense of renewal. Dana had said it was an elaborate way to feed ducks.

But now she is five years into her marriage and wonders if redemption is possible. What forgiveness might look like. 

Their synagogue dues have been paid for by Jonathan’s parents, Howard and Barbara. If only Dana and Jonathan lived closer, Barbara had lamented, they could come to Temple Beth El for services. But since the annual fee at B’nai Israel included tickets for the High Holidays, the in-laws reasoned, the membership almost paid for itself. Plus it had a nursery school, Howard had said with a gleaming smile.

What Howard and Barbara never considered was that it wouldn’t have occurred to Dana to worry about attending services on the High Holidays. Her parents had separated during the year leading up to her bat mitzvah, and while they had shielded her from their feuds over child support and visitation times, they did not spare her the spectacle of their arguments over the guest list or the budget for her party. Her father accused her mother of thinking she was planning a wedding, while her mother retorted that she couldn’t do everything on a shoestring, and solved the problem by slashing most of her father’s guest list. To the extent that the day had felt joyful, it was because the whole ordeal was over. After that her parents let their synagogue membership lapse. That it was no longer needed seemed to be the one thing they could agree on. Dana didn’t attend services again until she met Jonathan.

And now here she is on a bridge, cradling day-old bread. Cantor Joan, a slender woman wearing a flowing lavender dress, white prayer shawl, and beaded kippah made of silver wire, smiles as she leads a niggun. The notes of the wordless chant seem to lift her body. She does not look like someone who has come to the water to unburden her soul, Dana thinks. She looks like someone who loves her job. As the song concludes, Cantor Joan opens her prayer book. In the open space of nature, with no walls or ceiling, and with the sound of cars passing on the parkway above the water, she shouts to make herself heard.

“Micah said, ‘God will take us back in love. God will cast— tashlich—our sins into the depths of the sea,’” she calls. “Micah is telling us that we can separate ourselves from our past sins.” She pauses and surveys the crowd. “Just as the water carries away these crumbs, our mistakes can be carried away too.” She closes her prayer book and throws some bread into the water, then turns out her dress pockets to shake them over the water’s edge.

Dana clutches the crusty oblong loaf, which protrudes from the white paper bag. She feels a tug as Jonathan breaks off a piece. He holds it in both hands. He is crying.

“I don’t know where to start,” he says.

“We probably should have brought more bread,” she says. 

 

JUST WEEKS BEFORE, THEY HAD BEEN STANDING in their kitchen prepping dinner when Dana said, “I called the clinic today. There’s been a cancellation. They can see us this Friday.” Dana was chopping vegetables and didn’t look up when she said this.

“Have you been calling them every day?” Jonathan asked, peering from behind the open refrigerator door.

“Well it’s not like we have time to waste.” Dana pushed a pile of carrots to one side with the back of the knife blade and set to work on a red pepper. Jonathan came to one side and picked up a couple of carrot spears.

“I’m sorry, Babe, but I have a meeting Friday.”

Dana wondered why he had to chew so loudly. “You didn’t even ask me what time.”

“Okay, what time?” Jonathan took another bite of carrot.

Dana put the knife on the cutting board and turned to look at her husband. “Unbelievable,” she said.

“Well who knew getting pregnant could be so inconvenient? Can’t we just go the old-fashioned route?” Jonathan shimmied his hips from side to side and licked his remaining carrot stick. Dana was unsure whether he was trying to be sexy or if he was making a joke about how people look when they are trying to be sexy. Either way she was not impressed.

“We’ve been going the old-fashioned route for over a year. We could’ve had a baby by now.”

“My parents said it took them two years to conceive me.” Jonathan slid the carrot into his mouth and reached for a bit of pepper. His temples pulsed as he chewed.

“You’ve talked to your parents about this?”

“My mom says that women who are too health conscious sometimes don’t ovulate.”

“She’s just pissed because I actually have some control over what I put in my mouth. And what comes out of it for that matter. She’s probably blabbed to her whole book club that I can’t get pregnant.”

“Why do you care what some old ladies are talking about at their book club?”

“You’re right. I don’t care about that. I care that you talk more to your parents about our problems than to me. You’re not a child. Your parents don’t need to be involved in every aspect of your life.”

“I just think you should relax.”

“Who gave you that advice—your mom or your dad?”

“How about we open up a bottle of red? I bought a nice Cab on the way home.”

Dana wiped her hands on a dishtowel and shouldered past her husband. “I’m going to work out. The appointment’s at 2:30 on Friday. Make it work.”

At the gym, Dana set the treadmill to a faster setting than usual. The whirring of the machine coupled with the pounding of her feet on the belt didn’t quite soothe her, but it brought some satisfaction. Her phone lay in the cupholder, and she saw it light up. A text from Jonathan.

“Remind me and I’ll c if I can move my meeting”

This, Dana thought, was what passed in Jonathan’s mind as an apology. She tossed the phone back in the cupholder, turned up the incline of the treadmill. Her phone flashed again.

“Have you called insurance to make sure fertility covered”

Dana typed, “maybe you should have your parents call the insurance company,” but didn’t hit send. She tossed her phone back into the cup holder, with the screen turned away from herself.

That’s when she noticed Marco from her spin class. When they met she had enjoyed his flirtatious asides—his funny facial expressions evoking the instructor’s overplucked eyebrows, the way he would wink at her and sing along every time a Madonna song came on. He had suggested they exchange numbers so they could coordinate their workouts. Dana had assumed he was gay.

He wasn’t.

She found out when she complimented his new workout clothes, green-trimmed mesh shorts cut high on the side with a tank top that showed off his arms. Dana had reached out to pinch the piping along the hemline. Marco caught her hand and gave it a squeeze. Dana pulled away and hopped onto her bike. When the class ended he asked if she wanted to grab a bite to eat. She told him she had to get up early for a work meeting.

Now she decided to ask him for a drink. Marco didn’t seem at all surprised by her invitation. He said he knew a place a block away with a great deal on margaritas.

They found two seats at the end of the bar. They laughed easily over small things, inventing nicknames for the other spin class regulars. When Dana realized they had drained the pitcher Marco had ordered, she hopped off her barstool, said she should be getting home. Marco stepped down from his seat too, leaving only inches between them. “Let me guess—early meeting?” he smiled, his eyes on her mouth. His teeth were perfect.

“Well, not too early,” she said, rolling onto the balls of her feet to kiss him.

 

NOW, DANA STARES DOWN AT THE WATER. “I never meant for it to happen,” she says.

It’s warm for September. A hint of sewage wafts upward, turning Dana’s stomach. She takes a bit of bread and holds it in her mouth. Focuses on the sensation of it moistening and softening upon her tongue. A bicyclist coasts across the bridge; the wooden boards rattle under Dana’s feet.

Cantor Joan and the congregants begin to drift away. A little girl in red leather shoes and oversized hair bow toddles to the water. She leans forward to grab a stick that is peeking above the surface. The front of her dress dips into the creek. Muddy water drips down her shins, soaking her lace-trimmed ankle socks. Her father, unruffled, rolls up the sleeves of his crisp buttondown shirt and scoops her up from behind. Dana expects him to be annoyed, but he bends his neck to kiss the top of his daughter’s head. He is tall and slender like a heron, or a stork. He holds his child like a prize.

Jonathan watches the father pick his way up the embankment, then sends a morsel of bread sailing over the metal railing.

“I’m sorry,” he says.

“Why are you sorry?” Dana asks.

“I’m sorry I dragged my feet on fertility treatment. I’m sorry I questioned the cost.”

Dana swallows. “That doesn’t justify what I did.” She holds some bread over the water and lets it drop.

“True. You’ve ripped my guts out, Dana.”

Dana’s eyes fill with tears. She knows that if she blinks they will stream down her cheeks. But it doesn’t seem fair to cry.

“Who is it,” Jonathan asks, “that guy from the gym? Matteo?”

“Marco.”

“Marco. Jesus. I feel like such an idiot.” Jonathan takes a deep, jagged breath in, lets it seep out through his lips. “Can you at least tell me it’s over?”

Dana tears off another piece of bread and considers how to answer this question. Marco had been better at flirting than he was at fucking. Once inside his apartment that night, his clumsy fingers fumbled across her skin like furry caterpillars. He pushed his tongue so far into her mouth it felt like he was licking her molars. They shared his bed with a pile of unfolded laundry, which smelled like it had been forgotten in the washer for a day or two before being transferred to the dryer. A bit of trash crinkled under her shoulder blade as Marco moved on top of her. By the time he finished and heaved his body down onto the mattress beside Dana, one leg strewn across her pelvis like a fallen tree limb, she was sober enough to notice the row of half empty glasses lining the windowsill above the bed. The old metal blinds were open; the light from the street gave the room an orange glow. She reached under her back and pulled out the foil wrapper of an energy bar. Within moments, Marco was snoring. Dana pushed his leg aside and collected her clothes into a bundle against her chest. Deciding the shower was probably even filthier than the bed, she dressed in the hallway before slipping out for home.

After that, Dana stopped going to spin class. Changed her gym schedule to avoid running into Marco. He texted once, “where u been?” Jonathan read it over her shoulder, asked who Marco was. “Just a friend from the gym,” she said, and deleted his contact information from her phone.

Then her breasts were sore. Her period was late. She peed on a stick.

“It’s over with him,” she says. “It’s been over for weeks.”

 

IT HAD BEEN DANA WHO CANCELLED the clinic appointment. After her failed experiment with Marco, she needed time to think. She told Jonathan that he was right, that they should be patient. But then she avoided him. Stayed late at work. Went to bed early. After just a couple of weeks, going to bed early became less about staying away from Jonathan and more about giving her body something it craved. Rather than flailing in the darkness, she slumbered. Would wake feeling like she had been flattened by a steam roller, so would hoist the blankets to her chin and descend back into her dreams.

When she was awake it was difficult to mask the changes in her appetite. Vegetables held no appeal now. She kept pretzels and Wheat Thins at arms’ reach. She discovered that avoiding an empty stomach was the best way to keep from throwing up, so she stashed almonds in her nightstand. Carried a little container of grapes in her purse to pull out one by one on the Metro.

She sensed that Jonathan noticed a change in her. Felt his eyes resting on her as she trailed back to their bedroom at 8 o’clock. But he said nothing. She wanted him to confront her. Scream at her. Instead he looked at her with a searching sadness that told her he was worried about her. He would reach out to touch her elbow, her shoulder. She pulled away.

 

“YOU’RE PREGNANT.” HIGH ABOVE, a breeze rustles the tulip-poplar leaves. Dana drops another bit of bread into the creek, watches it bob in the water before the current pulls it under the bridge and out of sight.

“I don’t know how to wash this away,”she says.

“Would you want to wash it away? Even if you could?”

“I want a baby, but I don’t know if I want this baby. I want your baby.”

“Are you sure about that?”

“Of course I’m sure. I love you, Jonathan.”

 

FINDING OUT SHE WAS PREGNANT WAS nothing like she had imagined it would be. No rush of joy, no Jonathan scooping her into an embrace as they hugged and laughed in their narrow bathroom. Instead she sat on the toilet, pants around her ankles, watching the absorbent material inside the pregnancy test wick her urine upward, immediately turning both lines blue. She didn’t have to look back at the package instructions to know what it meant. She felt her heart—the organ, not the symbol of love—open and empty as the blood blossomed up through her neck and filled her ears, flooding her mind with fear.

 

“I KEPT TELLING MYSELF YOU’D GET pregnant when the time was right. But in the back of my mind I was afraid the problem was me. Looks like I was right,” Jonathan says. He puts his elbows on the railing, cradles his forehead in his palms. His shoulders rise and fall with quiet sobs. Clipped to his soft curls is the black suede kippah he wore at their wedding. Their names and anniversary date are embossed in silver on the inside. The same date is engraved inside their wedding rings. Dana tucks the bread under her arm and looks down at her ring, twists it with the fingers from her opposite hand. Whether it’s the heat or the pregnancy, it doesn’t want to turn. She slides the rest of the loaf from the bag and flings it over the railing. It lands with a thud in the shallows.

“I’ve ruined everything,” she says, and turns to go.

“That’s it?” Jonathan looks over his shoulder at her, his voice rising. “You’re giving up just like that?”

“Aren’t you?” she says, turning back around.

“You’re my family, Dana. Baby or no baby.” This word—family— makes Dana realize she hasn’t felt like a part of one for a long time.

“I don’t know how you’ll ever be able to forgive me,” she says. “Or how I’ll ever forgive myself. It would take an ocean to wash this mess away.” She crumples the empty bread bag into a ball.

“I don’t know either,” he says, wiping his nose with the back of his hand. “But I think I want to try. If you do.” He moves toward her and tucks her hair behind her ear. “Do you want to try? To be a family?”

Dana looks at the water. With the exception of the soggy loaf of bread, it is beautiful. She reaches for Jonathan’s hand and allows her own tears to fall. “Yes,” she says. “I do.”

 

Briana Maley’s fiction has been published in Chaleur Magazine, Literary Mama and The Passed Note. She lives in Takoma Park, Maryland.

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April 2, 2019 by

Fiction: A Serious Infatuation

Art: Ofri Cnaani

Art: Ofri Cnaani

FOR THE LAST SIX MONTHS I’VE SAT in Margo G.’s office as she prepares to counsel grieving families. At first it was twice a week. Now, I manage a visit every day. My teaching schedule is lighter in the summer and this back and forth wouldn’t be possible if the law school and the hospital weren’t next to each other. We met last winter. I was interviewing health care professionals in preparation for the course I’ll teach in the fall, Euthanasia and The Law.

Margo is a terminal care nurse passionately committed to the dying—a cheerful, in-your-face kind of girl with smiling blue eyes and fabulous ginger hair. Her generous figure moves with purpose as she searches for a patient’s chart, or preens herself for a meeting. Discretion reminds Margo that the grief-stricken do not want to deal with the pink flesh of her upper arms, so she slips on a white lab coat over those sleeveless cotton dresses. She’s partial to square necklines and full skirts, large printed flowers. Peonies are her favorite—crumpled, mauve blossoms. Watching as she brushes her hair, powders her face and freshens the gloss on her full lips, desire overcomes me. I’ve never experienced anything like it, not even in the beginning with Ellie.

The truth is, I’m infatuated. I love everything about her. When something strikes her as humorous, she nearly comes apart with her rowdy laughing and coughing. There’s probably far too much smoking and drinking going on. I suppose when you’re involved with death every day, you cry more and laugh harder than the rest of us. No one knows about Margo—not my colleagues, not my friends. I feel awful.

Margo and Ellie are total opposites. Ellie Rutenberg, my wife. High strung, for sure, but what panache. Tall, with a lean 1930’s figure and bobbed dark hair, clothes look terrific on her. In fact, she looks better in clothes than—never mind. Margo, on the other hand, is far better out of her peony dresses. Ellie’s mother, Gloria, claims her daughter has always been tied into knots. Probably. Gloria sees eye to eye with me on many things, far more than Ellie. 

It’s Sunday. In a couple hours, we’re hosting a barbecue for my graduate students. I’m sitting here in my study trying to finish up these lecture notes for my class tomorrow. Is it hard to swallow that Theodore Whistler is a professor of jurisprudence? Believe it or not, they wanted me as interim head. I declined, though I’ve been chairing the search committee. The administrative part is deadly. Thank God for the seminars and my writing. This morning I was up early intending to work, but I went for a walk instead. The air was fresh from last night’s rain. Too early for people, I saw a few cats and dogs obediently waiting on front porches, parked tricycles and bikes, doors closed—houses still with sleep. But now the cool air has disappeared and it’s hot and humid. Through my study window I see Ellie standing beside a daisy bush. The muggy heat surrounds her as she leans over to snip off dead blooms and gather fresh ones for her basket. She’s wearing the floppy hat that hides her eyes and a long shift—that raw linen thing with grass and twigs woven into the fabric. A friend of hers brought it back from India. It’s too predictably hippie for my taste, but I guess it’s attractive. Whatever she puts on looks good, but they’re just tasteful clothes, if you know what I mean. They’re never her statement, never an extension of her body and soul.

Ellie can spend hours alone in the garden. At least we have that in common. She teaches in Women and Gender Studies. Whatever.

After all these years, she still won’t drink with me.

“Jews don’t drink,” she says.

Even the kids say it when they catch me pouring a Scotch and offering one to Ellie.

“Daddy, don’t you understand? Jews don’t drink!” First Amy, then little David.

My mother-in-law comes to my defense. I’ve never known Gloria to refuse a Scotch, and when Ellie and the kids frown at her, she laughs it off.

“Well, I guess I’m not a very good Jew, and your daddy isn’t one at all, so there!”

Our daughter, Amy, is struggling with preparations for her bat mitzvah and Ellie’s been after me to attend services and convert. It has become a cause for her in these last few months. It began around the time I met Margo G., but that’s a complete coincidence. Sometimes I look out this window and see her working—the determined digging, the eager weeding. I watch, exhausted by her fervor. Does the possibility of my conversion goad her brain?

I’m toying with the idea. Why not? I wouldn’t be giving up anything. Religion has never been a part of my life. Despite everything, I want to please her, and the paths seem few. Incidentally, the thought intrigues my father. I called him last week.

“What a splendid intellectual exercise!” I could hear my old Dad pulling himself together at his kitchen wall phone in Oregon. He spends the days alone, studying his map collection, trying to keep from going under. He’s never been one for religion either. Mother was the keeper of our Lutheran heritage. It died with her—like the secret treasure, buried with her sea captain grandfather.

“Conversion?” Gloria was appalled when she heard. “You’re wacky. And as for Ellie, I’ve no idea where she gets off being observant’. She certainly wasn’t raised that way!”

“It’s her statement,” I tell Gloria, “she’s defining her territory.”

“Territory indeed! What baloney, what chutzpah! God knows, Joe and I never went in for that stuff. When the boys were of bar mitzvah age, then yes, briefly, but not before, and certainly not after.”

Two Scotches later, Gloria adds that Joe would turn over in his grave if he knew his grandchildren were attending religious school. “For Joe, that would be the opposite of progress.”

There she is, my Ellie, with the daisies in her hand and the hat brim covering her eyes. Is she hiding? Is she crying? My God, does she suspect? I’ve never wanted to hurt her. She glances towards the garden gate.

Gloria enters, smiling cheerfully, cheeks flushed, cake carrier in hand. She lives only blocks away and she walked. Vigorously, I’m certain. Khaki shorts, a pale blue T-shirt and off-white canvas hiking hat. She approaches her daughter. They exchange a pecky kiss, those two tall women. Despite Gloria’s consumption of Scotch and Ellie’s obsession with conversion, they’re very close. I must never forget I’m the outsider, in case my mind is so blurred by alcohol that life seems to be going my way. Ellie pats her mother’s back. Gloria gently touches her daughter’s face. She’s brought her famous strawberry shortcake and she’s come early to help prepare for the party.

I’ve been envious of their physical ease, their mutual affection. My mother never touched my face, and I didn’t pat her back. We didn’t do that in my family. Or maybe it was because of the gender thing, but it didn’t happen with my father either. Perhaps such crippling issues are dealt with in the Gender Studies Program. I sound sloppy and sentimental, but I covet Ellie and Gloria’s closeness, their naturally affectionate manner. Margo is the same. She hugs everyone. Her family didn’t, she once told me, but she’s learned. She’s learned to be demonstrative from those who are nearing death.

Does that mean it won’t happen for me until I’m dying? That’s a stupid thought. I’ve worked hard to achieve what I have—my family, career, home. I’ve been lucky, and I love my life. Am I a fool to throw it all away?

I wonder what Margo’s doing? Is she “lying out” as she refers to it? I don’t believe for a moment she truly exposes all that pink flesh to U.V. rays. She wants me to believe she indulges herself, that she’s still vibrant enough to challenge life with “risky” behavior. Margo knows I worry. What a piece of work. I need her, but we’ve agreed never to contact each other when I’m home.

 

“YOU’VE ALWAYS DEFENDED HIM, MOM, but I tell you, something’s wrong.” Ellie’s voice is anxious, her eyes soulful as she stares down at the basket, gently running her fingers along a daisy stem.

“Ellie, you’re such a worrywart! Can’t you relax, darling?” Gloria considers her daughter’s face.

This was the most difficult of all her children, by far the loveliest, the most intelligent, but certainly the most insecure. Gloria often wonders how she failed her daughter. What happened to the child, Ellie, to make her so unsure, so apprehensive?

“No, I can’t relax. His grad students will be arriving soon, and she’ll be among them. What if I discover who it is? How should I act?”

“Like a lady, my darling. Always like a lady.”

“Cut the crap, Mom! Just tell me what I’m supposed to do.”

“And how are you going to discover who it is?”

Ellie drops her eyes. “It might be something obvious, something

awful and obvious.”

“What? A clandestine kiss behind the wisteria?”

“You know what I mean!” Ellie removes her hat in exasperation. “Why do you insist on treating this as a joke?”

“I’m sorry darling, but you’re being silly. Theo adores you,” Gloria whispers, leaning towards her daughter until their foreheads touch. “Theodore Whistler positively worships you.”

Ellie pulls back, exasperated. “I wish I could be so certain.”

Gloria throws back her head and laughs.

“Never mind,” Ellie pouts. “Forget it. Come help me in the kitchen.”

As the two women walk around the back of the house and into the kitchen, Ellie turns to her mother. “He was watching us the whole time we stood in the garden. He watches from his study window. He stares at me when I work with the flowers. He’s jealous of us.”

“Honestly, Ellie, sometimes you don’t act like a grown woman with children.”

“Think what you want, but I’m telling you, he’s jealous of us,” Ellie repeats, a tight smile forming on her thin lips. 

Gloria realizes she hasn’t seen Ellie smile for days. Even like that.

 

THE CHILDREN ARE HOME FROM SWIMMING. I hear them talking in the kitchen, opening cupboards and drawers, probably helping themselves to cereal. Gloria will be “doctoring” as she says, the potato salad. She puts in lemon juice instead of vinegar, a spot of yogurt with the mayonnaise. Ellie lets her do what she wants in the kitchen. She doesn’t care. The kitchen is not her domain. The garden and children, her teaching, her recent obsession with the temple, these are Ellie’s preoccupations. In fact, I do most of the cooking. It’s one of my pleasures.

I usually spend Sundays preparing food for the week. I put on music and cook up a storm. On the days that Ellie and I both get home late, I’ll call the children from the office, instructing them on the oven temperature for the casserole waiting in the fridge. Having instilled them with the fear of God regarding danger and accidents, I follow up with cautionary reminders about the hot oven. The truth is, I fret constantly, mostly about freak accidents: the toddler who blows away his mouth and chin by licking the outlet; the child who runs into the street for a ball; the teenager who dives into a murky, shallow lake and ends up a quadriplegic. I worried while Ellie was pregnant—gross deformities. Gloria laughed. I had to tell someone. It was such a relief when the babies were born, healthy and pink and screaming their lungs out.

I adore them, but I don’t tell them. Ellie says the words “I love you.” Gloria does too. I’m a professor of jurisprudence and I can’t articulate love. Gloria teases me. She can’t understand why I make myself so crazy. Neither can I. She says the kids are incredible—they’d never do anything dangerous or careless. I know, and they’re responsible, too. They set the table and make a dinner salad. Gloria’s always available, only blocks away, just in case. She’s been wonderful about taking over when we can’t be there—car-pooling, evenings, trips. Not that Ellie and I go away together. Not in years. She claims it’s too much of a hassle. The truth is, she’s not interested in being alone with me. I guess I’ve lost my charm.

Ellie is probably arranging her daisies in the blue glass vase. Last month I ordered it from the Chicago Art Institute gift shop. She was impressed, saying she wasn’t aware I was interested in museums and their gift shops. She asked what the occasion was.

“No occasion,” I blurted, tongue-tied. I should have said more.

When Ellie is done with her flower arrangement, she’ll step back to look, engrossed with the composition. There’ll be the adjustment of a stem or two, more yew for greenery, more water in the vase. Ready. She’ll carry it over to the mantle in the living room.

If I am to keep Margo G., I will have to leave my family. I’ll see the children once a week and they’ll spend every other weekend with us, probably hating Margo. Isn’t that the way it is—divorce, the division of property, custody issues? Conversion will be out. Gloria might still have a drink with me occasionally, but I mustn’t forget that I am the outsider when it comes to Gloria and Ellie Rutenberg.

“Mom says it’s time to start the barbecue.”

Amy is standing in the doorway. She’s wearing a turned-around baseball cap and her little bikini bathing suit. She looks so fresh and young. I want to tell her to change, to put on something more protective. My children’s skin shouldn’t be exposed to the sun, but I’m trying to be a good father. I say nothing.

“I’m coming.” I reach for my hat on the desk and follow my daughter outside.

It has turned into a perfect, summer afternoon. The clouds are gone, the sun is out and there’s a slight breeze to carry away the heat. I feel better. Walking towards the garage, I wave to Gloria in the kitchen. She’s standing at the patio door, smiling, drying her hands on a dishtowel. I see Ellie coming out of the supply closet carrying paper plates and napkins, plastic cutlery. She looks stressed. Only 20 minutes ago she was picking daisies. If flowers can’t help her, how can I?

Amy is tagging behind me. She wants to help.

“It’s dark in here, Daddy.”

“I know. Watch your step, Amy.”

In the dim light of the garage, I find the bag of briquettes. I hear Amy behind me.

“What can I carry, Daddy?”

I look around. The briquettes are too heavy, and I don’t want her carrying matches. I reach for the can of lighter fluid.

“Carefully,” I say, handing her the can and bending for the briquettes.

I pass the clumps of peonies, flopped out across the lawn. They look heavy and exhausted. I think of Margo’s dress with the white field, the bruised blossoms. This year, I will have to dig them up, separate and replant, if we are to have decent blooms next summer. The thought of garden work is pleasing, but then I remember the party and the socializing with my students. I’m not up to it. I empty the bag of briquettes into the barbecue.

“Let me spritz it, Dad!”

“Better not, Amy. I’ll do the fluid. You can light it.” She agrees.

I watch as she carefully strikes the match. I’ll have to make small talk in answer to polite questions. They’ll ask if we built the house, if we designed the garden. Ellie will be aloof, Gloria, friendly. The kids will want to play ball with the students.

I watch as the flame licks up in excitement. Instinctively Amy pulls back her hand and drops the match. I see it fall to the ground near her foot.

 

LATER, AT THE HOSPITAL, I REALIZE that Amy must have squeezed the can as she carried it from the garage to the barbecue, spilling lighter fluid on her legs. There was no other way the liquid could escape. The can had to be squeezed or shaken. The lid was on, but I didn’t warn her not to squeeze. She’s only a child. What happened? I’m always so hysterically cautious. I was preoccupied, that’s what happened, I was obsessing while my daughter was dribbling lighter fluid down her legs. 

I sink, lower and lower, as we sit and wait, as I try to explain to Ellie, to Gloria, my Rutenberg women. It doesn’t do us any good. Ellie weeps, Gloria comforts her. I am the outsider. Ellie looks at me with hate.

I could buy a hundred blue vases and fill them with all the daisies in the world. I could convert to Judaism three times over. I could give up Margo. I could do all this and more, but the truth is, my wife does not hold me in her heart, and probably never did. It’s that simple.

Alone, I wait to see how bad it will be for our Amy.

 Nina Barragan was born in Córdoba, Argentina. Her three books of fiction are No Peace at Versailles, Losers and Keepers in Argentina and The Egyptian Man. She lives in Iowa City, Iowa, where she is at work on a memoir. 

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The Lilith Blog

October 18, 2018 by

“And I Am Two and Twenty.”

It is one of those summer evenings I wish could go on forever, the kind that I dream about all winter: the day’s heat giving way to a cooler evening;  the air still with an occasional soft breeze setting off the tinkling of the wind chimes; the scent of deep red and yellow roses wafting through the yard. I am in love. Barefoot, I race across the downy grass with J, who in a month will be my husband, and my brother, who is thirteen. Although we’ve only met the last September and were engaged by December, I am sure that J is the person I am supposed to marry. All summer I have been shopping for my trousseau with my mother. I have starred at bridal showers, and, along with my parents, marveled that a shy, awkward teenager had metamorphosed into a slender, smiling woman — a great catch. How could there be anything wrong?

The diamond ring shines brilliantly on my finger, the wedding plans are moving along at an unstoppable pace, and we’ve already rented an apartment, which I have been decorating in blue and green. Even better, my fiancé—I love that word–is a Nice Jewish Boy who works in his father’s business, which will someday be his.

There are warning signs, but I don’t see them. 

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October 3, 2018 by

Love at Second Sight

Screen Shot 2018-10-03 at 11.27.23 AMWhen I was a child, my mother gave me orange slices to suck when I threw up, to take away the bad taste. She sat on the floor, pincushion in hand, to shorten the hemline of my junior-high graduation dress. Other times, she turned my world upside down by screaming, “Get out of my sight, you fucking bastard! Go shit in your hat! Your name is Mud!” She hit me with a wooden hanger sometimes because, “It hurts me when I hit with my hand.” She also tried, with varying degrees of success, to act as a buffer between my strict father and me. In this, I felt we were allies.

Our relationship was complicated.

One afternoon when I was 15, I was shopping on Brooklyn’s Bay Parkway with my mother’s cousin Mildred. All at once, she clutched my arm and said, “Doesn’t that man look exactly like your mother’s first husband?” 

Mildred had always been a little off. “My mother was never married before,” I said. 

“You didn’t know?” 

An hour later, my mother confirmed Mildred’s story with a simple, “Yes, I was.” My initial shock turned to joy at the implication. Only days before, I’d asked why she tolerated all my father’s raging and irrational rules. “I’m surviving,” she’d said, “I’m coping.” She spoke as if she had met her goal. She didn’t realize I was asking why she tolerated it for the whole family, not just herself.

“Who’s my real father?” I asked, “Daddy or your first husband?”

“Daddy. I didn’t have children in my first marriage.”

That ended my interest.

We didn’t discuss it again for 45 years.

When I was 30 and my mother was in her late 50s she retired from a career as an educator. Listening to the PTA president’s speech at her party, I gained a new respect for her. “When Mrs. Conan came to this school, our children could not read. Now our children read!” she said.

My mother soon started a new career, as an interviewer with the Social Security Administration. She also embarked on what would become a decades-long quest for personhood, reading self-help books and filling index cards with sayings like, “We expect from each other only what we are able to give of ourselves.” Over the years, I had felt alternately angry and cordial toward my mother, though never really close. Now I sensed she longed for a deeper relationship. While I understood what she was doing, I wasn’t ready for more intimacy. She didn’t push it.

Little changed until my mother’s early 80s, when she visited me for a sleepover in my summer bungalow. It was three years after my father’s death. As I was drying the dishes, she said, “On Yom Kippur, before you ask God for forgiveness, you’re supposed to ask the person you wronged. So I’m asking, do you forgive me for all the bad things I did when you were growing up?”

This took me by surprise. Our conversations usually consisted of news exchanges, telling each other about places we had been or errands we had run. I didn’t want a give-and-take beyond that.

“Yeah, I forgive you,” I said, dabbing a stray drop on a cup.

“That doesn’t sound like forgiveness.”

Her voice was one I’d never heard before. It was vulnerable. Looking up, I saw an earnest face that scared me. I wanted to bolt. 

“I forgive you,” I repeated, meeting her eyes. 

“That still doesn’t sound like forgiveness.” 

Suddenly, I realized what a risk my mother was taking, and that she was in pain. I had the power to take it away or make it worse. I put down the towel, hugged her, and said, “I forgive you.”

She hugged me back, saying, “Now I know you mean it.”

I wasn’t sure how much I did mean it, though I was glad she thought I did, because I felt I ought to mean it. But in the months that followed, I felt lighter than I had in a long time. My mother had given me a gift. She had acknowledged that the things she’d said and done had really happened, and she knew that they were hurtful.

Until then, I had never wondered what made her the way she was. I’d been too busy surviving myself. Now I began to be curious about what had shaped her, and asked whether she would share her recollections. She was very willing to answer questions. In fact, she seemed to welcome them. Our exchanges, a few minutes here, a few there, added emotional depth to what I already knew.

My mother was the sixth of nine children born to the doting Greek-Jewish grandparents I called Nona and Papoo. I’d never imagined they might not have been that way as parents, being so preoccupied with paying the mortgage they couldn’t give much attention to any one child. My mother didn’t start school until she was seven, because Nona kept her home to care for her brother, four years younger. When she graduated from elementary school, Nona and Papoo came to the ceremony. Afterward, the three of them walked home together, the first time my mother was alone with both parents. She told me how proud she felt making her way down the block between them, for all the world to see.

Nona’s greatest wish for each of her daughters was a husband. My mother craved Nona’s approval, so, at 21, she married her college boyfriend. But Nona wasn’t pleased, because he didn’t have a job. The marriage lasted three years.

Two years later, my mother met my father. She was captivated because he spoke several languages, played chess, and listened to classical music, and because his attentions were a balm after her divorce. Nona was satisfied with my mother’s second match: he was a postal clerk. They were married in four months.

Things deteriorated quickly. When my mother bought an inexpensive dress without first asking my father, he took her name off the bank account. A sewing-machine operator in a factory, she had to turn over her salary to him, and he gave her an allowance for household expenses.

Then came World War II. My father left for Europe when I was two and my brother just days old. Within weeks, my mother got a job as a substitute teacher and opened her own bank account. When my father returned a year later, he resumed his role as the boss at home, but my mother kept her bank account and her career.

I asked why she had never divorced him. “I didn’t want to be unmarried,” she said.

In her late 80s, my mother requested my help managing her paperwork. Once a week, I drove from Manhattan to the Brooklyn house I grew up in. We sat at a bridge table in my brother’s old room and reviewed bills and bank statements, then went out to eat. She always insisted on paying, and on giving me a little extra for myself, because “It shouldn’t cost you anything to visit your mother.”

I looked forward to these visits. My mother felt our togetherness, too. “It’s love at second sight,” she said.

One day, in the course of a meandering conversation, she mentioned her first husband. I asked how the marriage had ended. “He left me for my best friend,” she said.

I visualized my mother as a young woman feeling the pain of abandonment and lost love. “How long did it take you to get over it?” I asked. 

“I never got over it,” she said.

I was stunned. The marriage had ended over 60 years ago. I asked what her husband’s name was. 
 
“Sam Langbert,” she said.

After dinner, as I began my drive back to Manhattan, I saw my mother in my rear-view mirror, waving from the top of the stoop. When I got to my apartment, there was her usual message on my answering machine. “Vivian, this is your mother. You just left. I hope you have a safe trip home. I had a wonderful time with you. And Vivian, I love you. Iloveyou, Iloveyou, Iloveyou. Bye-bye, Vivian.” 

That night, I did an Internet search for Sam Langbert. After I determined he was still living—he wasn’t in the Social Security Death Index—I looked through directories and found a listing in Florida. I called my mother and told her I had an address for a man who might be the Sam Langbert she married. “Do you want it?” I asked.

“No,” she said, “but don’t throw it out.”

A week later, she called. “Viv, if you still have that address, I’ll take it.” She wrote a letter that began, “If you are the Sam Langbert whose mother lived on 18th Avenue in Brooklyn and whose father had a shoe-repair shop on 34th Street in Manhattan, near Macy’s, then I was your wife.”

Sam’s reply arrived in eight days. He wrote that he had thought of her often, she was a fine person, and he felt bad about what he had done. Her friend left him after a few years, and he had been married several times since. “So you see, I don’t have a very good track record as a husband.”

My mother answered, telling him she had been married 52 years, her daughter was a librarian, her son a psychologist, and she had three grandsons. She wrote that she had been a school principal.

“I wanted him to know I was successful,” she told me.

I asked how she felt having gotten in touch with him after all these years.

“I finally have closure,” she said, looking more peaceful than I had ever seen her.

Two years later, just before her 90th birthday, my mother was reminiscing about her childhood. “I have a picture of my mother in my bedroom,” she said. “And I look at her, and I thank her. I thank her for being my mother. I enjoy her more now, I think, than I did when she was alive.”

I was enjoying my own mother now, and glad she was alive to know it. 

Vivian Conan has written for the New York Times and New York magazine. She has just completed her memoir, Losing the Atmosphere.

Art: “CONTACT” BY MAUDE WHITE, INSTA: @BYMAUDEWHITE

 

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