I was standing at the kitchen counter, cutting roses and preparing them for a vase, when Binyamin burst into the kitchen and began pacing back and forth. We’d been married ten months by then.
“Want a slice?” I gestured toward the potato kugel I’d made for Shabbos, which was coming in an hour or two.
He didn’t answer, just stared at my mid-section, his swollen eyes perplexed. His head rocked slightly from side to side, like he was having an argument with himself. Out of instinct, I sucked in my belly, but it wasn’t my flab that bothered him.
He muttered, “Aren’t large women supposed to be more fertile?”
I blinked. I lay the cutting shears on the counter. “What did you say?”
“You should’ve been expecting by now,” he said in a deeply injured tone.
Little shocks exploded in my brain. Before I could even respond, he skulked off to take his pre-Shabbos shower.
I tried to cut the flower stems at an angle to make them last longer but my fingers were trembling so hard I didn’t trust myself.
Hah! So that’s why he’d picked me. He’d weirdly assumed that a fuller figure meant more motherly and fertile. So I was just here to bring more little Benjies into the world, was I? Believe me, I wanted those Benjies, too! But he’d acted like I’d fooled or betrayed him.
Shame stung me from every side, like a swarm of bees. I’d thought he’d chosen me, Ruchella, for my good qualities, but he’d picked me because I was a size fourteen!
Needless to say, it was a horrible Shabbos. By the end, though, I calmed down. It was his social awkwardness talking, not him. He was an introvert, he didn’t know how to communicate. That’s what I said to myself.
I found him in the den flipping through TV channels.
I told him I wanted children as much as he did, and in such situations couples consulted with a fertility specialist and most often the infertility got resolved.
He said, his eyes on the screen, “What happens at a fertility specialist?”
I explained how the doctor took tests, figured out where the issue lay – with the husband or wife, or maybe both, and took appropriate procedures to smooth the way to conception.
Panic flickered across his forehead. “I’m not stepping foot in there.”
“But – why not?” I said, flabbergasted.
“It’s” his features twisted “it’s disgusting. And it’s nobody’s business. Besides, it couldn’t possibly be my fault.”
I ignored the jab. Also, part of me understood why he didn’t want to go near those tests. I figured lots of men wouldn’t.
“Then I’ll go myself.”
He said, “No, you just won’t go at all,” as if that was that, just because he’d said so.
Have I lost you there, Shaindy? Well, ‘cos you’re staring at me like I’m speaking in sign language.
So that night we saw a movie. I know you don’t allow a TV in your home, but this one’s worth seeing. Gaslight. The gist of it is, this evil husband tries to pull the wool over his wife’s eyes – Ingrid – to drive her mad. He keeps dimming the lights to the point where the house is pitch black. Still, he acts like nothing’s wrong and even pretends to read a newspaper in the total dark, to trick her. Poor Ingrid’s getting crazier than a loon, and as I watched, I wondered: Is my husband trying to drive me insane? No, no, he wouldn’t do that, I told myself. But bit by bit, he was trying to erase me and what my heart wanted. And I wanted children! If we needed a little outside help, there was no shame in that. Shaindy, I made the appointment.
When I arrived at the doctor’s, the receptionist told me the appointment had been cancelled, and gave me a curious look. Outside, I leaned against a wall, clasped my elbows, and pieced together what most likely had happened. He’d called the three or four fertility specialists in town until he’d gotten the right one, then cancelled it. I shivered. Who was this stranger I had married?
When I got home, I said numbly, “So you cancelled my appointment. Just like that.”
He responded with barely concealed fury, “Of course I cancelled. I clearly instructed you not to go. Did you not hear what I said? Did you not understand me?”
I stared at him. His nostrils were spreading, starting to prick and redden, and it so unnerved me, I backed out of the den, sat on our deck, looked at the stars and prayed.
Everything changed from that day. No more smiles, no more evening walks, no more asking about the other’s day. Nothing between us would ever be the same. In Binyamin’s rigid world, I’d crossed a line by following my own mind, not his. I had disobeyed him and wouldn’t be forgiven. When here he was the one who needed my forgiveness!
Look Shaindy, I know you want to get to the exciting part already, but I’m not only telling this to you. I’m talking this out to me, to sort it out in my mind.
He found my book, The Clean Organized Happier You, and put a D minus on the parts where I needed to improve. Hah! I deserved a B plus at the least. He emptied the kitchen and medicine cabinets and demanded they be organized alphabetically. He was going to re-educate me, see? The peasant, the electrician’s daughter. Don’t ask me why I went along with his “recommendations.” Maybe I thought if he was obsessed with making me better, it had to mean he still cared, didn’t it? Maybe he’d return to the Binyamin who had taken me miniature golfing and on a helicopter ride over a lake and who had praised my peaches and cream complexion.
Remember when you came all the way down from Baltimore, Shaindy, bringing little Moishy in tow? It was on a Sunday. I know the bus ride couldn’t have been too easy, being that you were in your fifth month. I tried not to let my jealousy show. I showed you around, grandly pointing out this new chair, that set of table linens from Bloomingdale’s, avoiding the upstairs where Binyamin was having one of his drawn-out showers. Later, we were talking in the kitchen, and I did some twisty thing with my thumb to make Moishy laugh, when Binyamin called out from upstairs, “Where’s my blue suit?”
I went to the foot of the stairs. “I brought it to the dry cleaners today.”
“Today? Why not yesterday?” he said, his voice thick with annoyance.
“Because you asked me to today.”
“It should’ve been obvious to you that it needed to be brought in yesterday, without my having to tell you.”
The chill in his voice made any response pointless. Instead, I waited at the bottom of the stairs for his signal that would release me.
Finally he let out a sigh of forbearance. “It’ll have to be my pinstripe suit, then.” As he drifted off, I heard him mutter, “Useless!”
I went back into the kitchen. “Is this how he normally treats you?” you blurted.
I jumped. I hadn’t realized you’d been listening. “Uh, what do you mean?”
“Like…like you’re a dodo! Like he’s Lord Fauntleroy! And you’re his serf!”
I turned crimson. It felt like you were putting a magnifying glass on our pathetic marriage, for the world to see. “My husband was raised with high standards. What you don’t seem to realize is,” I said, adopting his stiff tone, “he treats me like a queen.” My arm swept my stainless steel kitchen. “I can buy whatever I want.”
You said, “You call that a life?”
How could you say that, Shaindy? I couldn’t stand your looking at me with those pity eyes.
I made a shooing motion. “Go on. You just go home back to Paper Plate City Baltimore. Go home to your prize, Shaindy, all right?”
Your face blanched. Like I’d thrown hot acid at it. I shouldn’t have insinuated that your Yossi doesn’t make the greatest living, I should’ve apologized but I wouldn’t. Because you scorched me.
When you huffed off with my nephew, I patted myself on the back. Hah. I’d stood up to my bossy oldest sister.
What a joke. Really, I should’ve been standing up to him. Meanwhile I lost my only ally – you.
(To be continued)