By Rebecca M. Ross
Lying to her husband gets Brurya out of the house. Asking him for a get, a divorce, gets her beaten. Three months into her marriage and twenty-year-old Brurya is nothing more than a glorified maid who opens her legs to him for two weeks a month. Everything about sex is abhorrent, the way he holds her, the way he forces himself on her—even his scent is repulsive. Akiva is thirty-nine with a graying black chest-length beard that Brurya has never seen without crumbs. He’s always disheveled, always awkward, always wearing his wrinkled black suit and white shirt with the fringes of his tzitzis hanging limply onto his pants. His wire-framed glasses are always foggy with fingerprints and she’s sure that if she didn’t wash his clothing, he wouldn’t either.
After the first nightmarish month of her marriage, she learned the truth. Familial pressure and two dates in the Times Square Marriott Marquis lounge with a man who was old enough to be her father, landed Brurya in the midst of a tumultuous and short-lived month and a half of choosing dishes, linens and furniture for a future she didn’t want. Had she realized that she was coerced into the arrangement so that her eighteen-year old sister could get married, she might have fought back harder, but her protests went unheard in the joyous sea of mazel tovs. At their wedding, Akiva’s eighty-year-old father and Brurya’s father, thirty-five years his junior, made l’chaims over Slivovitz and then danced arm-in-arm together with the yeshiva students who came to watch Akiva remove his bride-to-be’s opaque veil. Brurya cried. Within the hour, she was wed to Akiva, who leered at her hungrily in the bridal room. She had become a wife, a possession.
Brurya clutches the straps of a black tote bag, while Akiva pulls over to the side of the street and flips the locks. She leaps out of the back seat and scurries into the mikvah building where she works nights, assisting women in the biblical commandment of immersion so that they may regain purity after menstruation and return to their husbands.
Just as she’s expected, she slips unnoticed down the stairs and into the marble-tiled reception room, passing through the apricot-colored waiting area. It is decorated with imitation Queen Anne-style footed chairs and settees, all of which are covered in gold and coral brocade. She walks down one of many narrow hallways to a small room where the mikvah attendants gather while waiting to bring their charges to the renewing waters. Brurya puts her bag down on a small table, removes her short black jacket and pulls a white apron over her head and ties it in the back.
“Brurya! How are you?” Sarah asks as she enters, arms filled with folded white towels. Sarah’s head is wrapped in a pink and gold Israeli-style scarf and her glasses are too big for her thin face. She’s been married for five years with no children. She’s only twenty-three, but already the community has started to talk. Brurya is one of the few people to know that Sarah is working at the mikvah as a segula, a good luck omen,to help her get pregnant. Perhaps following Jewish laws more closely and helping with the community will prove to God that she’s worthy of becoming a mother. Perhaps that will help her to conceive. The fact that she’s ovulating during the time that she’s not permitted to her husband is another story. And the fact that she doesn’t understand enough about her own body to even question what is happening, or not happening, won’t help to get her pregnant. So Sarah just keeps coming to work at the mikvah, thinking that by some miracle this act will help her to become a mother.
“Thank God. And you?” Brurya thinks fast on her feet. Sarah always seems so joyful and free, despite the burden of infertility.
“Baruch Hashem. I just wish Thursday nights weren’t so busy. I’m so tired all the time.” Sarah piles the clean towels on the shelves, easy for the attendants to grab for restocking the preparation rooms that must be cleaned after each use.
“Yeah. I know. And I’m sorry.” Brurya nervously bites her lip.
“Why are you sorry?”
“I need to immerse tonight. It’s going to be a late night.” Brurya offers a weak smile of apology. Sarah is so sweet and kind and so innocent. Brurya carries the weight of the world on her shoulders and has the great misfortune to be stubbornly non-conformist in a community where conformity is the key to survival.
“That’s fine.” Sarah points to Brurya’s snood. “Your hair.”
Brurya sighs and readjusts the headband so that no hairs stick out. She tries not to be annoyed, but it’s hard to see the logic in keeping her hair covered in the mikvah, of all places. There are no men here that she might accidentally lead to sin, so what’s the big deal if a few hairs show themselves? However much she wants to debate the issue, she wills herself to silence, knowing that now is not the time for an altercation. There is too much to be done.
Sarah hands her a pair of nail scissors, a nail file and a pair of tweezers which Brurya puts into her apron pocket. The sound of approaching footsteps, the click of a key turning in a lock, the creak of a door opening and the muted sound of it clacking shut are heard. Twenty minutes later, Brurya rushes to the room when the buzzer sounds.
“Do you need to be checked?” she asks the heavy woman wrapped in a white robe.
“Just my back.” She turns her back to Brurya and lets her robe fall down so that her corpulent back is bare. Brurya removes a few stray hairs that cling to the folds in her skin and remembers why she hates this job. When she goes to remove a fourth hair, the woman lets out a little shriek.
“Oy vey, I’m so sorry. I didn’t realize.” Brurya hates the mikvah. She hates being checked when it’s her time and she hates checking others. Guilt and humiliation wash over her, the way the waters of the mikvah will wash over this ample-bodied woman when she enters the pool. She’s careful not to make eye contact when she opens the door and leads her down the hall to the mikvah room.
The woman sways behind Brurya. Each step shifts her weight heavily on legs thick like phone poles, and the thud of heavy feet on marble announce to the inhabitants of the other preparation rooms that she is going to immerse. Brurya feels uncomfortable being in this position, knowing that within a few hours this large woman will be having relations with her husband. She hates knowing the community’s sex schedule. She hates seeing the bodies, the tight bodies of young girls not yet stretched by pregnancy, the nervous bodies of brides who immerse in fear and anticipation of their wedding nights, the women whose bodies are pockmarked, stretch-marked, welted, terror-stricken, eager for consummation, sagging, perky, beautiful, obese, hairy, slim, chunky, malnourished—she hates seeing all of these bodies, knowing more about their scheduled intimacy than any stranger should.
It’s unnatural, she thinks as she takes the woman’s robe and averts her gaze as her charge thumps down the stairs. A few steps, then one foot reaches into the water, then the next and within a few more steps, her cellulite-riddled buttocks are covered, a few more and her enormous lolling breasts are in the water and she is covered to her neck.
“Kosher!” Brurya says as the woman immerses, her head covered by the water. A prayer is uttered, and Brurya pronounces each subsequent dip kosher, hands her the robe, and leads her back to the bathroom in which she prepared.
The night continues on, with different bodies coming to dip after soaking in the tub, paring nails down to the fingertips, scrubbing all traces of dirt and grime and brushing knots out of tangled locks. Some women have taken an hour of preparation in the antechamber while others have prepared at home. Brurya tries to be as welcoming as possible, while trying to be an invisible presence for those who may prefer she not be there at all. Watching all of those women to make sure they are correctly performing a ritual that she personally cannot stand takes its toll on her. For Brurya, going to mikvah means coming home to two weeks of violence, sometimes more if Akiva forgets himself and touches her while she’s menstruating. It means having to cool swelling welts, having to make excuses when he hits her in the face and having to explain swollen eyes and tear-streaked cheeks to concerned and curious neighbors. Every night of her marriage she has told herself that this night will be different. Brurya tells herself the same thing tonight. Tonight she’s sure. She knows he won’t beat her tonight.
It is eleven o’clock and Sarah and Brurya haven’t had a break. The other mikvah ladies are older and some have already gone home but Brurya and Sarah will be here until the end of the night. Sarah’s back hurts from constantly cleaning and re-cleaning the bathrooms but she remembers Brurya’s request.
“You should start getting ready now,” she says to Brurya. “I’ll deal with the last two women.” The receptionist has already locked the doors for the evening, so Sarah knows there’s hope. The night is almost over and she can go home to her husband. Perhaps tonight will be the night, she thinks.
Brurya grabs her black bag and enters one of the glorified bathrooms to prepare for her immersion. After locking the doors, she removes her snood, letting her dark, wavy hair loose. She misses the days when she was able to wear it long. So many girls she knows look forward to hiding their hair from the world. To them, it’s a mark of honor. To Brurya, it’s the epitome of oppression. She can only hope that covering their hair doesn’t hold the same demands and abuses as covering her hair does. She places the satiny snood into her bag, careful not to snag the knotted netting on the outside. Brurya purchased it just prior to her wedding, when she still had hope. “You’ll grow to love each other,” her mother had said, not meeting her eyes. And when Brurya had confided in her in the weeks following her wedding, her mother had given the same reply. Two weeks later, Brurya didn’t attend her cousin’s wedding because of a black eye and a bruised rib and when she threatened to call the police, Akiva just laughed. When she told her mother her plans, she begged her not to report Akiva. “You’ll ruin your sister’s chances of getting a good husband! You cannot go to the police! You’ll shame the whole community!”
In her bag is a bottle of Nyquil. In her short marriage, drugged sleep is the only thing that brings freedom from Akiva. Brurya takes it out and drinks directly from the bottle, pausing only to swallow. She drinks long, clears her throat and watches as the water fills the tub. She replaces the bottle’s cap and puts it down on the side of the sink. Brurya takes off her watch and her pearl earrings. Taking her wedding band off is a struggle and she twists and turns it on her finger until it passes the first knuckle. She quickly trims and files her nails, moves the towels closer to the bathtub, and removes all traces of makeup from her face. Brurya takes her toothbrush out of her bag and when she’s done flossing, she brushes her teeth with the lemony-mint toothpaste provided. She sits down on the cream colored molded plastic seat of the bath chair and removes her stockings, pausing to stare at the purple bruises on her thighs. I will not be a victim, she thinks.
The tub filled, Brurya eases in and sits, stretching her pale legs out before her. She takes the soap from its paper wrapper and rubs it into the washcloth. She washes each part of her body, making sure that no traces of any substances remain on her skin, which would prevent the mikvah waters from touching her directly. It’s like preparing a body for burial, she realizes. Cleaning in order to purify, just like the chevra kadisha, the burial society, does. She continues carefully, taking care to wash under each breast, to clean her navel, to scrub between her toes, to bathe her most private of places. She shampoos her hair, lathering it into a thick froth and submerges for a few seconds. Brurya turns on the water, pulls the plug and lifts the pin for the shower. She carefully rinses, turns off the water and steps from the bath into rubber flip flops, wraps herself in a towel and dries off and sits again, in front of the mirror, next to the toilet. She combs out her hair, blows her nose and swabs her ears and the corners of her eyes.
She continues her preparations, checking in the mirror for stray hairs, noticing the pale red raised welts that curl over her shoulders like long, crooked fingers. One of the women she brought to the mikvah this evening wore welts across her back like so many sequins on an evening gown. These were alternated with purple and black bruises staining her legs and what looked like burn marks around the nape of her neck. This particular woman, like all of the other abused wives she’s seen, paused just a few seconds too long when taking off her robe, sighed a deep sigh coming from somewhere in the recesses of her being, and then, grabbing the banister, walked bravely down into the waters. Brurya knew her secret and yet, bound by the privacy of the ritual of immersion, could say nothing. All she could hope was that this woman would somehow have the courage to speak out or run away or tell someone—all of the things that were useless and impossible in Brurya’s own reality.
Ready now to immerse, Brurya covers her hair with a bleached terry turban and dons the freshly laundered white robe that she had placed in the room earlier. She ignores the call buttons near the door, opting not to summon Sarah, despite knowing that according to the rabbinic authorities, she needs to be there to make sure that she has completely immersed. Sarah is busy with the two remaining women on the other side of the hall. Brurya walks to the mikvah that isn’t being used, knowing that Sarah won’t come to check her until she’s called. She yawns, exhausted from the night of work, knowing the Nyquil is kicking in and that she has to hurry.
Quietly, Brurya opens the door to the room containing the pool. She walks through and pulls the door closed behind her. The metal railing around the deep pool gleams and she unties the robe, folds it in half and hangs it over the side. She steps out of her slippers and begins to descend the stairs into the mikvah. By the third step, her feet have reached ankle-high water and it embraces her in its comforting warmth. Several more steps and the water covers her waist. Four more and it is up to her shoulders. At the end of the staircase she turns and hops lightly from the last step, removes the turban, and places it on a ledge. There are three additional steps the width of small platforms, with each step providing access to a greater depth of water. Although she is not tall, she walks down to the third step, until she has to stand on tiptoe to keep her face above the water. She takes a deep breath and dunks near the wall, making sure that her whole body is covered. Her mouth is partially open and her body is relaxed and she comes up within seconds. She rubs the water from her eyes and pushes her hair out of her dripping face. She takes the white turban from the ledge and stretches it on to her head.
“Blessed are You, Lord, our God, King of the universe, who has sanctified us with his His commandments and commanded us concerning immersion.” Brurya utters the Hebrew words and feels waves of exhaustion sweeping over her. She removes the turban and puts it back on the ledge. Just as she performed the first dunk, Brurya dips again, letting the water cover her body. She lifts her feet from the floor and leans back into a semi-sitting position. Her eyes are open and she searches the wall before coming up. There is a hole, about three inches in diameter connecting the ritual bath with the otzar, the required pool of rainwater that mixes with the waters in the mikvah, making it valid for immersion. Brurya surfaces again, and again she brushes the hair from her face.
Sarah checks the first woman and leads her to the pool on the other side of the hall, unaware that Brurya has already started immersing. Like Brurya, Sarah bends her head when the woman is taking off her robe and carefully avoids looking at her body. The woman enters the water. Sarah waits for her to immerse and then pronounces each dunk kosher, pausing only after the first for the blessing, to which Sarah answers, “Amen.” For a second, she thinks she hears splashing but attributes it to the woman she’s with, and continues hoping that maybe tonight will bring her the blessing of a long-awaited pregnancy.
Brurya yawns, struggles to keep her eyes open and then dunks for the third time, completing the minimum number of dips for her immersion to be valid. Again, she takes note of the aperture. It is just above the height of her knee. Instead of leaning back into the water as she was taught, she leans forward towards the wall, bending her body towards the hole. She pushes her hands together under the water and thrusts them into the hole connecting the two pools, ignoring the burning sting of the newly scraped skin on her wrists. Brurya is forced to a squat to maintain her position, but she does, fighting sleepily against her instincts to come up for air.
Sarah leads the woman back down the marble-tiled hall to the preparation room so she can get dressed. In the room next door, a middle-aged woman with sagging skin waits for Sarah to inspect her fingers and toes for missed traces of dirt and check her back for hairs. Sarah enters and, finding no reason to delay, leads the woman to the mikvah that she just exited.
“Kosher!” Sarah says as the woman comes up. The woman pauses, her arms folded under the water, over her breasts, flat from years of use. She closes her eyes and moves her lips, silently, nakedly beseeching God for the most personal of things. Finally done, she dunks a second and third time. Again, she pauses, and then dunks an additional four times, according to her custom. Sarah thinks she hears splashing in the adjacent mikvah, but dismisses it, knowing that she and Brurya are the only attendants still on duty.
Sarah holds the robe open above her line of vision while the woman climbs the stairs out of the mikvah. She wraps the robe around her and leads her back to the room. While the recently-immersed woman changes back to her street clothing, Sarah grabs a bucket with a mop, rubber gloves, Lysol and goes into the recently emptied room and gathers the towels for the laundry, sprays the tub, toilet and sink with disinfectant and mops the floor. She leaves the bucket in the hall to clean the next bathroom. When she hears the click of the other door, she knows that the other bathroom has been vacated. Sarah cleans and straightens the room and returns the cleaning supplies to the storeroom and looks at her watch. It’s fifteen minutes to midnight and the night has stretched on endlessly.
“Brurya?” Sarah knocks on the door of the anteroom. “Brurya? Are you ready?”
There is no answer and Sarah slowly turns the handle to the door. It opens easily and she peers inside. She sees Brurya’s black bag and the bottle of Nyquil on the sink. Sarah notices that the robe and flip flops are missing. She must have already gone down, she thinks.
Sarah yawns, and walks down the hall to the room holding the pool. She opens the door to the mikvah where she brought the last two women and then it hits her and she realizes it was the splashing—the splashing that she heard, and her thoughts are in slow motion. She runs to the other pool, just next door, and sees Brurya’s slippers near the steps and her robe hanging on the polished chrome of the railing but she doesn’t see Brurya. She rushes to the edge, already fearful of what she’ll find and then she’s trying to scream and the shadowy image of the figure at the bottom of the pool won’t leave her sight, even after she’s closed her eyes, even after she’s turned away. Running, slipping on the wet floor she reaches the emergency call button and pounds the call button and finally she screams and screams and her throat is raw but she just can’t stop.
Copyright © Rebecca M. Ross 2013
Rebecca M. Ross has been writing creatively since she learned how to print. Since then, her work has been featured on By the Overpass, By the Millpond, The New Vilna Review, Scribblers on the Roof, Unpious, and Errant Parent. She received both a BFA in creative writing and MA in English from Brooklyn College, and spent several years teaching high school in Brooklyn. She is currently a tutor, freelance writer, and activist. Ms. Ross lives in the Hudson Valley with her husband, four kids, and large dog. You can follow her blog at www.rebeccamross.blogspot.com.