Underwater, I opened my eyes. Bubbles moved like abacus beads across the hairs between my legs.
“You stay down there longer than the other women,” said Penina Sussman, who was watching me from the tile when I emerged. She held out a towel.
“Don’t talk,” said her mother, who was sitting in a gray folding chair farther from the Jacuzzi-sized pool. Mrs. Sussman owned the mikvah and was also my attendant, although recently Penina, a shiny-faced teenager, had been doing most of the actual attending.
“It’s warm,” I said to Penina. I dried the hairs between my legs first with a slight plié. “Someday you’ll see.”
Her eyes flitted at me blankly. “Hopefully someday soon,” she said.
I had known the Sussmans for the length of my marriage—almost two years—and Penina was changing. There were breasts underneath that turtleneck.
“May we not see you for nine months, Marisa,” Mrs. Sussman said. She was leaned over in her chair, circling a patch of red skin on the knob of her ankle with a fingernail.
It was the same insinuating farewell every month and yet I had no idea how to respond; Mrs. Sussman didn’t want to know that I was on the pill and I didn’t want to tell her. I suppose that she might have known all along—she could predict almost perfectly on which nights I would show up, and what else but pharmaceutical intervention could explain my constancy?—but I believed that I needed at least to affect a desire to get pregnant in order to be allowed to come to her mikvah, which was small, word-of-mouth only. Amit and I wanted children, but not until he was out of school and I could quit my job.
“Should’ve happened by now, shouldn’t it?” I asked.
Penina led me down the hall to the dressing room. Alone, I squeezed my wet curls with the towel. My outfit was waiting for me there on the Sussmans’ fraying damask chair: Chantilly lace bra and underwear, cashmere top, wool stockings, herringbone skirt—all cold on my skin when I put them on. As a matter of personal ceremony I restored the gold wedding band to my finger last.
When I came back out, Penina held the front door open for me onto the basement-level stairwell outside.
“Maybe this really will be the month,” she whispered. She was trying to reassure me, and the earnestness of her effort made me feel, briefly, sad and exposed. But I kept my face placid. As I walked past her I tried to discern from her last look whether my performance had come off or not.
Someone who didn’t know better might have thought Penina and I were the same type of religious—I had taken to dressing modestly, covering up my knees and elbows and clavicles. But I tried to do so stylishly, unlike Penina, who wore permanently out-of-season long jean skirts and must have brushed out her long brown curls into a triangle of frizz rather than manage them, as I did. Never brush a curl, I might have told her, if she and every other young, mincingly Orthodox girl like her did not give me the heebie-jeebies with their blank expressions. Their male counterparts were normal and well socialized—Penina’s brothers, for instance, were gregarious and loud when I ran into them around the city—but the girls were socially impenetrable, almost autistic in manner except for the occasional burst of misdirected sweetness. And I never just ran into them anywhere.
Outside, my hair started to freeze. When it got this cold I usually dried it before leaving, but in order not to end up looking like Penina I needed my diffuser and hadn’t thought to put it in my purse that morning; it was the beginning of November in Washington, DC—too early to anticipate cold like this.
I saw the woman with the pink leather purse almost as soon as I was street-level. By the time I registered where I knew her from, she had seen me. She called out my name and strolled toward me. She was a member of the general counsel at my office—Lacy or Tracy or Stacy, I couldn’t remember. She was tall and zaftig in a way she wore well, as if her extra weight were a beautiful coat. She was also wearing an actual, beautiful coat—brown leather, down to her knees; I recognized it from a recent Vogue.
“You don’t live around here, do you?” she asked.
I quickly surveyed the new, taupe apartments around us. It was a street that had recently been renovated, another conquest of the same trend that would price us all out of the city someday. It was a wonder the Sussman mikvah was still here. “Me?” I asked. “No.”
“Your hair is wet,” she said.
She hoisted her leather bag high up on her shoulder, possibly so I could see it better. I immediately recognized it: Fendi, a seventeen-hundred-dollar purse. My head was full of this stuff.
I grabbed at a hardened curl, as if I wasn’t sure what she was talking about. “My gym’s around here,” I said, since it seemed easier to lie.
“What gym?” she asked. “In the basement of my building?”
She turned and we looked, together, at the stairs I’d just come up. The Sussman mikvah was behind an unmarked door one floor below ground. But above it five floors of luxury apartments perched, their curtained windows rimmed in gold plate. She had her key ring looped around her index finger. My husband barely knew what happened at the mikvah, and he was the one who wanted me to go there in the first place. It was holy and it was private and I preferred to lie rather than explain.
“It’s a private gym,” I said.
She was big, but had a regular-sized head—the head of a beautiful, thin woman, which she cocked at me. I started walking away. When I turned around to give her a conciliatory wave, I saw her frozen in a pose of ire. She was unaccustomed to being denied.
I met my husband, Amit Karp, at a Shabbos dinner. He was well over six feet tall, all legs, with narrow, floppy movements like a fish on a line but a face like a painting of a face—smooth, with high, inquisitive cheek bones and two small moles on his left jaw. He would not shake my hand because he was shomer negiah—no touching until marriage, a few rungs more religious than I was or ever wanted to be—but we had an easy time together. He thought I was funny and said so, and neither of us was interested in staying single any longer. Plus, he was in optometry school; he could promise me some comfort. In my job as a fundraiser, I spent all day listening to people hem and haw about whether to donate five thousand or ten; while in my private life, my credit-card bills sailed in under the red banner of late notice. We were married within the year.
My parents had put me in a Jewish day school so that I would be “literate” (their word) in my religion, but they were essentially agnostic capitalists and never expected I would have a taste for the lifestyle that complemented the school’s teachings. Under the marriage chuppah I could feel in each of their grips on my arm a trembling hesitation, but there was nothing they could do: In Jewish weddings no one says “speak now or forever hold your peace” because by the time everyone is assembled the contract has already been signed; it is too late.
But as I felt then and still feel today: What did they know? More than me? Put your daughter in Jewish day school but then tell her, once she’s grown, that it was all balderdash? There was no wisdom in that, and against their hypocrisy I went with my gut: This tall, sturdy fish from northern Virginia who believed in every holiday, every ritual, the solidity of whose conviction was to me a bulwark against anomie.
Back at our apartment—which was emphatically not luxury: one bedroom, a small living room, and a tiny pocket kitchen—I told Amit what happened outside the mikvah, because I tried to tell Amit everything.
“My sneaky lady,” he said. “But why do you need to hide it from her?”
He was not upset at my evasion of the woman from my office; rather, he was elated to find out I’d been at the mikvah. By the laws of family purity we kept, we went almost two weeks every month without sleeping together, and mikvah night was the end of our “sex Sabbath,” a phrase we used privately, possibly blasphemously. Family purity had been Amit’s request: Seven days after the end of my period each month, I submerged myself in the cleansing waters of the mikvah; it was Mrs. Sussman’s job to make sure every hair went all the way under. In day school I’d learned that it was more important that a town had a mikvah than a temple, but I’d been a headstrong, touchy kid, and back then the significance of the practice hadn’t made it seem any less voyeuristic and gross to me. What finally changed my mind, after I met Amit, was the fact that the edict about mikvah attendance is considered one of the “unfathomables” of Judaism—we obey because G-d says so; it is beyond the narrow faculties of our human reason to understand why. I had a vague, gnawing feeling that there was some One, some god-like Thing more expansive than the cloistered realm of Earth, but what I believed in more strongly was the presence, like a second self, of all I did not know. So I could adhere to a religion, broadly, that admitted to the unfathomableness of the universe, and to a ritual, specifically, whose enactment was a gesture toward that vastly deficient comprehension.
“Can’t I keep one thing to myself?” I asked Amit. We were sitting on the couch, facing the window that looked out onto a brick wall. The run-in on the street had put me in a bad mood, on top of which I had accidentally used cottage cheese in the lasagna instead of ricotta—again—and we’d eaten it anyway. “I should have to explain this, too?”
But Amit, who had always worn a yarmulke and always had the four white fringes of his tzitzit emerging from underneath his shirts, did not share my discomfort about having strangers know holy things about him. Still, he was patient with me.
“Seems to me you cause yourself more angst trying to hide than just saying a little something that’s true, that’s all I mean,” he said.
He was in his ratty gray George Washington University sweatshirt, with the hood up since we kept the heat low and he got cold easily. His schoolbooks were spread over the dining-room table in a way that might have convinced someone who didn’t know better that he had actually gotten some studying done.
He lifted up my right breast in his palm, and the weight of it disappeared.
“So heavy,” he said. “I can’t believe you carry these around with you every day.”
“That feels nice,” I said.
Amit smiled, and the two moles on his jaw rose. We stared at each other, like we sometimes did.
“When can I quit my job so I don’t have to deal with stuff like this anymore?” I asked, breaking eye contact. “The Lacy Tracy Stacys of the world.”
Amit put down my breast and picked up my hands, kissing them. “So soon,” he said. “Two years. One and a half.”
It was an optimistic statement—reckless, even, and it upset me, although no answer to the question I had asked would have pleased me. Amit was in his first semester at teachers’ college, and he knew what I was really referring to: Optometry school had not panned out. We were going even further into debt. He walked across the room and sat down at the dining-room table, as if he could shrink the amount of school he had left by putting in another ten minutes of studying now. He balanced one of his expensive textbooks on the table, Teaching Real Life Math Skills in Middle School, and began to read. He looked up again at the sound of me ripping off the plastic wrapping of the Glamour magazine that had come in the mail for me that day, and gave me his Marisa, I’m working face. Not because he was Mr. Studious, but because he wasn’t, because it was such a fragile state, because he was eager to blame his general failure at all things school-related on anything but some inherent fact about himself, and I was always right there, right across the width of our tiny apartment.
I held up my hands in mock surrender and got comfortable on the couch. Each page of the magazine was its own variety of torture—the clothes, shoes, and jewelry all stunning eye-feasts, brassy metals and saturated colors, an aggravation of the one gigantic, pulsing fact that I did not have any money. My parents had money, and growing up I might have had any of these sweaters or earrings or pumps if my mother saw how cute they made me look—but I did not want to look cute for my parents anymore. More than anything I did not want to ask them for help.
In less than five minutes Amit scraped his chair back and came over to the edge of the couch.
“Has anyone ever told you you have ADD?” I asked.
He still had his hood up, the drawstring tightened around his face. He put his hands on the back of my neck—my spot, a confirmation that we’d be having sex any minute.
“You’re my little abuser, you know that?” he said, beginning to stroke the tiny hairs there, making me tingle. “Do you think I thought we’d be in this position when I promised to provide for you?”
He nodded toward our marriage contract, a huge ornate document framed on the wall above the television, the most beautiful thing in the apartment.
Ani l’dodi v’dodi li, it read. I am my beloved’s and my beloved is mine.
We were twenty-five.
The reason I wasn’t sure of the woman’s name was that I only ever saw her in the bathroom nearest my cubicle. She brought her bag of makeup and camped out at the sink for a quarter of an hour or more sometimes; the lawyers had their own bathroom, and my colleagues in the fundraising bullpen and I suspected that she used ours because it made her look un-attorney-like, all that primping. But she didn’t mind looking vain in front of us plebeians.
The next week, I walked out of the bathroom stall and there she was at the sink, an unmistakable tray of Smashbox Santigolden Shadow Collage in Earth As We Know It open in her hand—thirty-dollar eye shadow, according to my most recent copy of Elle.
“If it isn’t Lil Miss Secret Keeper,” she said, playfully haughty as if we were still on her turf.
I had already spent the day feeling harassed. My boss had posted our October numbers on the sticker chart he used because he thought it improved morale, but of course a sticker chart is no fun when yours is the row with the fewest sparkly dinosaurs and turkey legs and snowflakes. None of my potential donors had gotten back to me, and it was past lunch, past the time when people with money were open-minded and pliable.
“If you really want to know,” I said. Nobody else was in the bathroom. I started to smile but then yanked it back. “But I don’t think you’d know him.”
Her eyebrows rose, showing off the blue-bronze eye shadow and lengthening her small face considerably. “You aren’t,” she said.
I let us both sit with what I’d said for a few beats longer, trying to feel its contours.
“His name is Mick,” I said in a whisper. Now I was just having fun. “Although that’s not what his wife calls him, or really anybody. It’s kind of a private name.”
“He’s married!” she said.
“Come on,” I whispered. “I’m married.”
I showed her the front of my left hand, my plain gold band.
She was giddy. “Do you think your husband has any idea?”
“Not a clue,” I said. “He’s not that smart. He flunked out of optometry school.”
She nodded, as if she knew that part already. I couldn’t remember if I had told this to people at the office.
“You’ll have to lead a double life,” she said.
Our eyes met in the mirror. “I already do,” I said.
The afternoon before Thanksgiving, Amit and I took the train up to New Jersey and got off in Secaucus just as the last, bruised light was leaving the sky. Outside the station my father was waiting.
“If it isn’t Abraham and Sarah themselves,” he said, wringing Amit’s hand. “Get in, get in.” He gestured at the car behind him, a new, blue Audi I didn’t recognize. “Give me those bags. What do you have in here, Marisa, a Torah? I’m kidding, honey, I know it’s just your wigs. Aha! There I got you.”
It was the same every time, and Amit was becoming inured. He smiled up at the dark purple sky, as if G-d were up there, playing jokes on him.
I sat behind Amit so I wouldn’t have to meet my father’s eyes in the rearview. I was not so unstable as to feel freshly insulted by him, but his shtick made me tired. We got onto the highway and he turned on the CD player; the didgeridoo and pan flute of his world music seeped through every pore in the car. Amit gamely inquired about my father’s work—he owned a meatpacking business that I wasn’t allowed to criticize because it had “sent me to college”—and my father launched into a monologue about a protest outside his warehouse of a certain kind of chicken-cage technology I couldn’t quite make out over the music. He laughed at his own story while Amit dutifully nodded.
The meat palace—as I referred to it around Amit so he would see I was separate from it, that I didn’t think of it as mine anymore—was in the blind spot of a cul-de-sac, only visible once you’d gone three-quarters of the way around, and even then it was set back down a lengthy driveway. The house was fronted by four pillars, and the foyer was tiled in black and white, like a chess board.
“You smell the same,” my mother said when I walked in. She was tall and had her nose in my scalp. My father joked about wigs because they were actually terrified I was going to show up in one someday. In spite of myself, I understood where they were coming from. Penina Sussman was still a teenager working nights at her mother’s mikvah, but each month when I saw her I imagined the long brown clumps of her hair falling to the floor when she got married, and it made me uneasy.
My mother let me go, and Amit and I followed my father upstairs, both our bags on his shoulders. I peered into each room as we headed toward my bedroom at the end of the hall—my parents’ suite, the guest bathroom, the first guest room and then the second, where I used to pile the extra clothes that didn’t fit in my closet. Now, my mother’s orange yoga mat was unfurled diagonally across the floor, facing the flat-screen TV in the corner. I stopped and stared. On the wall above the guest bed was an old, familiar photo, fitted into a small frame. I walked in to look at it more closely, and Amit followed. It was me on the beach, my curly brown hair blown horizontal by the wind, my arms wrapped around the barrel chest of Octavio Mastromiano, my college boyfriend. He had come with our family on a vacation to the Outer Banks one summer.
I heard my father hoisting our bags onto my bed in the next room and I yelled for him.
“What is that photo doing there?” I said.
He came in and squinted at the wall.
“Your mother put that up,” he said. “She does her tai chi in here and says it calms her down.”
Amit was staring at the ceiling, his face inscrutable. He always tried not to do or say anything around my parents that might support their supposition of his freakishness, but sometimes this meant that in situations where his response might be of use to us both he opted, instead, for silence.
I climbed on the bed, lifted the frame off the wall, and stomped downstairs to my mother. She had the small television in the kitchen tuned to a professional male psychic who was claiming to channel the dead.
“Of all the pictures in the world you chose this one?” I asked. “What about the five million ones of me and Amit from our wedding? Where are those?”
“Oh, it was so cold that day,” my mother said. “I just like this one because of the sand, and the sky, and the ocean—and you look so lovely in that swimsuit. I never get to see your figure anymore, in all these long skirts you’re always wearing.”
“But it’s Octavio,” I said. I tapped on his round, smooth face in the frame. “He broke up with me.” It still upset me to think about it—we had been together two years at Rutgers. But then I remembered myself. “And I’m married to Amit.”
“Come to the beach with us this year and I’ll take a photo of the two of you and put it up,” my mother said.
This was a different, more entrenched conversation.
“You know he doesn’t like the beach,” I said. Amit’s family had never vacationed when he was growing up. He wasn’t great at focusing on work, but he also didn’t have any idea how to relax for extended periods of time. He hated being barefoot, and the wind irritated his eyes.
“We had such a great time that year with Octavio,” my mother said.
“Mom, quit it,” I said. “You’re being delusional. I’m married.” I said the last word as if it were two separate words.
When I went back upstairs, Amit was taking a shower in my private bathroom, as he always liked to do after we got off the train. I sat on my bed and listened to the sound of the water shifting as he moved around under the showerhead. Octavio had been a bulky, dusky theater major, a self-involved, temperamental Catholic perfectly happy to be worshipped by me until, one day, my novelty evaporated. By my insistence we never slept together, but we did absolutely everything else. Earlier on the morning the picture on the beach was taken, I had given him a blow job that had brought me closer than ever to budding a second clitoris in my mouth.
The faucet squeaked off and Amit opened the bathroom door into the bedroom, releasing whorls of steam. A dark blue towel was knotted high on his hips. He had a long, narrow chest with a ridge of brown curly hair right over his heart, which I loved.
“Your parents are obsessed with him, I don’t understand it,” he said.
Always “him,” never “Octavio,” which made total sense except that, at the time, it hurt.
“Amit, darling, dodi, they like things their way, I can’t explain it,” I said. “My mother has a fantasy about moving us all to the beach one day and she doesn’t like that it’s not your thing.”
“I just have very sensitive eyes,” he said. “All that sunlight, the sand, the wind—”
“I know,” I said. I stood up and put my arms around him.
He shrunk away. “Your hands are freezing,” he said. He sighed. “I see that picture and I can’t help it, I imagine you with him.”
We had that in common. I was starting to feel very turned on by the combination of my memory and Amit’s anger.
“Octavio never had me, though,” I said.
I pulled my cashmere sweater over my head. I had a little chubbiness in my stomach but you would never notice because I had large breasts and I kept myself in nice bras. Some women think they are irresistible, but I knew I actually was to Amit. His eyes flickered, moving into the gray zone between ire and lust. That was my favorite zone. In another six seconds I was out of my skirt and tights and straddling him across the bed, his mouth on one breast and both hands moving between me, angry and intrepid. I opened the dark-blue towel and, seeing him, I saw Octavio, too, and also Daniel Kelso, Kevin Bergeron, and Michael Baer—all the men I’d taken into my mouth because I was saving the rest of me for marriage. And when, in this marriage, on the big bed in my childhood room, Amit replaced his fingers with himself, it was like they were all inside me, like I could hold my whole life between my hips.
There was no more talk of Octavio or beaches or anything of any actual substance for the rest of the trip. On Thanksgiving there was the usual trouble surrounding Amit eating only the undressed salad and refusing the turkey my father had handpicked from his favorite distributor, but this was an old injury, and each time something like it happened I could see my father understanding slightly better that on this point he would never get his way with his son-in-law. Foolishly, I considered this progress. I ate what my parents served, and Amit, as ever, did not harass me about it. He understood I was managing divided loyalties and went out of his way to show me it did not bother him by giving me a peck on my unkosher-turkey-touched lips. This, my husband’s beneficence, his flexibility, his attempt to show me that he loved me as I was.
“Home,” Amit said with relief once we were back from the trip and in our apartment. He headed straight for the shower, and I knew he wanted to wash off not only the train but the meat palace itself.
“My parents try, you know,” I said as he undressed in our bedroom.
“Was that what that was?” he said. “That was them trying?”
I knew Amit was right. I knew he was the one who was trying, not them. But part of his trying was to arrange in his mind my parents as the aggressors and me as the victim. Perhaps this was the story I had told him. Nonetheless it grated on me. And when he’d kissed my lips at Thanksgiving, it was a dry peck. I was a deep, wet, living well. I was my mother’s daughter: I wanted the wind in my hair.
December came, the days shortening to ungenerous, narrow windows of daylight. It was Amit’s favorite time of year and my least, this darkness.
Seven nights after the end of my menstruation, I walked out of the office and turned left, away from the Sussman mikvah. It was a freezing night, totally unreasonable to be sticking my head into any pools, I decided. And I did not want to see Penina. I did not want to see her hair and imagine it shorn.
I cut through Embassy Row—the quicker route home in my opinion, although Amit didn’t like to go this way at night; he said it was too fancy and quiet. I didn’t see it that way. I loved how the countries were jammed in randomly—Romania, Ireland, Greece, the Bahamas, Sudan, Togo—places that could not possibly have anything to say to one another. As I passed each one my heart quickened; my blood warmed me to my edges.
By the time I got to our apartment I was out of breath and inexplicably elated. I burst through the door like I’d been away for years. Amit was at the dining-room table with his books, and he grinned at me: Now that I was home he could stop studying. I yanked him up and into our bedroom.
“Sex Sabbath over?” he said into my ear, rough, as he popped apart the eyelets of my bra.
I rolled my stockings and underwear into a hoop on the floor. “Yes,” I said.
By the time I got cleaned up and Amit awoke from one of his thin naps, it was seven thirty and we were starving. We decided to get dinner at the one kosher restaurant within walking distance, even though it was always a compromise to go there: In exchange for someone else cooking your food, you exposed yourself to the scrutiny of every religious Jew in the district. But neither of us cared; we were starving.
Ordering our burgers at the counter, Amit draped his arm around my shoulder, and I grasped his dangling fingers. For the first time since our return from my parents’ house, he seemed fully at ease.
He took our order number from the cashier and squeezed me closer as we walked away. “Even if you become so fat from all this food, I will still want to split you open,” he whispered. I leaned my face toward his torso and sniffed—it was the smell of his body, floury and oily and mine.
We found a table against the window in the back, and as we sat down, I heard my name. We turned and there was Eli, oldest child of the Sussman clan, holding a tray of food for two. I smiled. I liked him infinitely more than Penina. A few tables away a girl with her sweater buttoned up to her neck was eyeing us—another one of those children of the corn.
“On a date, Eliahu?” Amit asked.
“If I don’t keel over with nerves first,” Eli said, although this was an affectation: He clearly had all his faculties.
“Just don’t say anything stupid,” Amit said. Amit thought that because he was becoming a teacher he had to act like he was sixty years old to boys not so much younger than him.
Over the intercom the cashier murmured a few order numbers. Amit jumped up.
“Best of luck, young sir,” he said to Eli. He shook him once in the shoulder and then ambled to the front to get our burgers.
I thought Eli would walk away too, but he continued to stand before me, looking expectant. He was a very good-looking boy—eighteen now, I estimated. In search of a wife of his own.
“Your friend is waiting,” I said.
“Marisa.” He looked around surreptitiously and then leaned in, whispering. “I’m sorry. I know I should be discreet, but I cannot pretend not to have heard about your little absence this evening. Is it too early to say mazel tov?”
I kept smiling at Eli in order to conceal a hot stab of anger: One of the Sussman women was a squealer. But then I remembered Penina’s earnest face at the bottom of the steps, thinking she knew what I wanted and that she could wish it true for me. My anger thinned and then broke apart. If this was a trap, I had laid it myself.
“It is definitely too early to say mazel tov,” I said finally. Eli’s face fell. “These things are delicate, Eli. Women, the whole business: We’re delicate.”
He nodded, eyes wide, as if this were actually wisdom. It was true they didn’t teach these sorts of things in the day schools. These sorts of mores you had to learn for yourself.
Eli walked back toward his date. Across the restaurant Amit bounced on his heels, his back to me, next in line at the pickup window.