(Excerpt from a Novel)
By Menachem Kaiser
Only in the strictest technical sense was the announcement a surprise. Every person at the two-family dinner—four parents and three siblings and two siblings-in-law, but better categorized as Moms, and everyone else—knew exactly what was coming, and if the couple-to-be had any sense at all, the announcement would come before dessert, because the Moms, guessing correctly what was happening, picking up on hesitations and shy smiles and Talmudically deconstructing “It's going really great mom, yeah,” into hard reliable intel, and with their hypertrophied intuition knowing right away that their current only and biggest dream and wish was going to come true, at last, but it'd better be before dessert, because those cakes—marble chocolate and lemon meringue, from scratch, yes, the entire thing from scratch, the graham cracker bowl perfectly symmetrical and unskewed and the meringue of eggs beaten with a whisk, properly and with love, until, look at it, it's almost obscenely foamy—Saran-wrapped to the finest serving plates in the respective armoires—plates that, because coincidence has impeccable timing, matched each other indescribably well, a blue floral to a sunshine yellow.
The Moms peppered the first three-and-a-half courses with explosions of excitements, little squeals of Momisms, of I'm so happys and I can't waits. The couple deflected each of the many entreaties to just do it already with smiles and strategic forkfuls of special-occasion roast beef and mashed potatoes.
Somehow the Moms had positioned themselves at one head of a table, like they were co-chairmen. Directly across from them was the couple, who also shared the head. And along the sides were the various supporting family members, all excited, but respectfully and politely so.
The Moms pressed on, asking, if, just saying, totally hypothetically, they were to have kids, just pretend, what would they name them? We'll cross that bridge when we come to it, or some other such nonsense, came back the response.
The Moms rushed everyone through the last course. They literally could not take the wait any longer; they looked like incontinent children, knees bobbing and sporadic arrhythmic clapping. Plates unemptied were cleared, and seconds were only offered, not forced.
Okay, mammale, tell us already. We can't take it any longer, we've been sitting here growing ulcers, the Moms said; what's the good news, come on already, just spill it and make us proud, don't we deserve at least that?, and watched as their babies stood up and with a final hand squeeze that from here looked like pure unworried affection, the sort that comes when problems are safely abstract and in the future and on the horizon is only happiness and mazel tovs and little gurgling bundles of joy, and he finally got up and said well the good news is, yes, as I think you guys may have already guessed, we're getting married, but—and the moms erupted in tears and hugs and cries and logistical questions too high-pitched to understand and absolutely did not let their babies continue with what had to be said.
. . . because ten minutes before this little girl died, her parents started to argue.
And but this argument had no gradual build-up, no slow accumulation of anger, no accretion of frustration, no escalation, no strike & response, no rhythm even, no bluff-call-raise crescendo & crash. This argument was instantly fierce and dizzyingly high-stakes, all-in right away, as if the last big one, just over three months ago—nearly half, we think it bears mentioning, of this little girl's life—had been paused at its peak and was now resumed, the action cut mid-take, all actors maintaining positions and silently mouthing their lines in the meanwhile. An argument fueled by something uglier than difference.
And so let us picture it, ten minutes before the event in question, this little girl not eight feet away in her rocker, comfortable and secure as a cliché, parents absorbed in agreeable non-conversation; the whole picture an acceptable facsimile of the everyday grinding bliss implicitly promised under the chuppah—happiness more a right and obligation than product or reward, but happiness's potential is itself happiness, is it not?, and without warning it erupts, the silence shattered and instantly made sinister, more pregnant, more strategic, like covert formations before battle, or an infant's noiseless intake before her wail, a lacuna defined by what's about to overwhelm it.
And so imagine it, hear it: this little girl's parents' uncorking their kept screams, the fears and disdain and trappedness and toxic insecurities swelling and fermenting within, the volume and emotional tone quantum-leaping to unbearable. Almost in unison, their yells were, almost musical: contrapuntal screams and improvised break-ins and flying solos off the handle, and this little girl the unwitting audience.
And but of course it wasn't a duet, it was a duel: this little girl's parents parried, attacking, seeking insult in even the tiniest offhand comment, seeking and confirming the absolute not-understanding and callousness and extremely intentional meanness contained within.
And what, we may inquire were they arguing about? What possessed them, distracted them so, seized all of their attentions and focused it on their respective spouse, now less a person let alone a soulmate than a target and the source for everything wrong in both their lives, so that they did not and could not notice or even feel this little girl's presence two paces away? This little girl who'd been called by them on countless occasions, and we quote, 'God's beautiful decision'?
And but does it matter? Isn't this argument as inscrutable as any: meaning trapped, contained, visible to its participants only, and only during?
And so what then? Is there or need there be a reason beyond anger? For isn't anger the inversion of love? If love blinds, might it be said that anger illuminates, turns the glare of the harshest spotlight on its target without mercy? That anger's bearer examines and counts and comments on the soul's cracks and fault lines, and all is visible and naked and fair game?
And because it is because of love that this little girl's parents were armed with daggers they knew could pierce; and these they pulled and aimed to kill: they blamed each other for that which they had known might happen, though they had knowingly rolled the dice together, and what had come up had come up, and though this little girl is yet a blessing—not every blessing is easy, we know, we know, but a blessing it is.
And but back to the event—because in the course of this little girl's parents' argument, one—does it matter which? the prosecution cares not specifically who, responsibility and blame only components of what this court really cares about, namely worth—and in the course of this argument a blanket was tossed and landed on the cradle that this little girl was in.
And neither noticed, because allowing oneself distraction amounts to concession; and lungs of a nonresponsive nervous system can't hope to pierce a woven wool blanket; and both this little girl's parents had invested far too much of themselves to give up now, and so it continued more than ten minutes, far longer than those four minutes that can cleave a soul from its body; and only after the nothingness exhausted and consumed itself, and there was left only the single point of tangible contention—what this little girl's name would be, even for a little while, especially for a little while—and nothing else, for all else was hevel*; and thereupon they finally checked on this little girl, this little girl who ten minutes ago was the only thing keeping them together. And this little girl had decided their argument and left without a name.
And so we rest our case, and end with a question we feel answered: are people like this deserving?
The babysitter smiled à propos of nothing. He smiled back, and it didn't feel awkward or at all wrong. He felt that she could tell what a good driver he was—fast, ballsy, flirting with recklessness but just on the right side of responsible—something his wife consistently failed to appreciate. His hands, self-consciously at the five and seven o'clock positions, were shaking slightly as he drove.
A red light stopped the car and he racked his brain for suitable small-talk material and came up with nothing. The silence had a bite, he felt it, the stab of evaporating opportunity; but when he realized how his mind was framing this—that this was an opportunity—it made him wince. He'd tried convincing himself that she wasn't worth the trouble, the sexual payoff too unlikely to justify the massive psychic investment. And in general he discarded people easily: All he needed was a flaw to seize upon and tear wide open and engulf her entire being in it. Define the person by the lack. But the babysitter had no obvious flaw, no even microcrack to start with. She was, he always noticed, always on time to babysit, had flawless skin, showed not the slightest hint of irresponsibility towards the house and its contents, had a figure that made him physically ache, by all appearances genuinely cared for his daughter, dressed with enough but not too much provocation, cared consistently for a child that by degenerative disease was becoming uglier and more contorted by the day and was incapable of showing even the slightest recognition to her parents let alone an occasional caretaker, never showed dissatisfaction with the agreed-upon payment and tip, and had a face that shone eagerness and excitement and sexual secrecy always, even here, right now, in the car, with him, while he fumbled for small talk.
He wondered, as the light blinked and bade him forward, if they were on the same wavelength, if he and the babysitter might share just the right amount of emotional attachment—appreciative, grateful, committed, but not dependent, and never fully emotionally committed—for something that, miracle case scenario, would die before it was five. His wife, on the other hand, refused to acknowledge basic unflinching reality, refused to behave like a good rational person ought to and prepare for the inevitable.
He thought what he might do, what he might get away with, over these last two stoplights before her turn, if he'd lean over wordlessly and with a rock-steady gaze, like in those black & white movies his wife watched while she fed with breasts that sagged, sadly, breasts that had given up, if the babysitter would close her eyes while she received him, and still without a word he'd lean back and watch as her smile would spread so slowly, like God himself was painting it on, and her eyes would open and instantly find their focus on his, and if she spoke the only words she'd say would be 'Keep driving', and he would, he'd keep driving, their fingers meeting each other on the skinny leather armrest between them and they'd drive to nowhere and away from everything, away from the baby who, yes, he loved like a father; but his love, like its object, had an expiration, was ultimately disposable; and the anger he'd leave behind would last only as long as that baby would, three years on the outside, most likely much less, so said no less than the doctor so matter-of-factly; and in any case they'd separate then, she because the despair would be overwhelming and he because he'd refuse to share in it, and he'd keep driving until behind him was empty.
I have good news and I have bad news. The good news is that the Messiah is here, he's arrived, I met him, and he's actually a pretty good guy, fun to talk to, killer timing, interesting, knows all sorts of crazy shit, totally lived up to my expectations. The bad news is that he's extremely depressed, he's I'm pretty sure an alcoholic, and if he hasn't pissed himself sitting on that bar stool for the last four and a half hours, well, it's only because he's the Messiah.
The doctors, rabbis, friends, confidantes, therapists new and old, family—all spoke in a similar pattern. First the sympathy, then empathy, intuition when weighing someone else's fate so marvelously clear, then the backtrack, the second-guessing that's only psychically affordable to those with no real stake, then, it's your choice, they'd inevitably say, or some variation of the same bullshit. And, they'd remind and remind, like if she didn't know, that it's not your fault.
This isn't a choice, she'd scream, but inside, because she was grateful for what they were trying to do, for what they thought they were doing. It helped, in a way. But choice? This is no choice. A choice is what's for lunch, or which school, or what to wear today, or which film, or what style haircut. Choice is not the same as alternatives; choice implies freedom to choose, implies the potential of informed answers, of even a right answer.
Choice isn't deciding whether to leave the only man you'll ever love—and fuck everyone who says, hints, implores that you'll get over him and find love anew; because if that happens it will only happen because the woman she is will be dead—leave him because any child of you and this man will have a 25% chance of dying while you watch. Choice isn't rolling dice with heaven.
And fuck no it's not her fault, she knows that. Jews wouldn't leave their shtetls, wouldn't spread their increasingly sickly genes around enough, wouldn't let mutations peter out, gradually and harmlessly dissolve in the greater gene pool; no, they married each other and their kids married each other, and their kids married each other and they ended up one gigantic endlessly-interrelated genetically fucked-up blob that's its own catalyst, trying really hard to torpedo its own chromosome 15's hexosaminidase A gene. So, the doctor said, it works like this. She's a carrier because of all this inbreeding—see, there's a good gene and bad, respectively dominant and non-, high school bio, remember—and, no need to worry just yet, the carrier's danger is all in its potential, meaningless in itself, requiring a partner to be unleashed. But now, the doctor kept going, because her maybe husband's a carrier and because their kid takes a gene from him and a gene from her, probably'll be okay, end up making the right choice at least once, but might really luck the fuck out and take the two bad ones, pick wrong twice. (Quick, from high school statistics: what is the percentage of picking one wrong out of two twice?) And so how is it her fault that her kid will 1/4 be crippled by age six months, her brain's nerves cells choking in gangliosides, then blind, deaf, unable to swallow, and dead by five, if?
Maybe they shouldn't have gotten tested, she wondered to the doctor. Ruined the surprise.
Did you know, the doctor mentioned, that Ashkenazi Jews aren't the only ones who've hurt themselves like this? That the Amish have a higher than normal incidence of polydactly? Of what? Extra fingers and toes. Oh. Yep, and this island in Micronesia—Pingelap or something—there's total color blindness there. Really, huh.
And God better fucking oblige her.
* Hevel - A Biblical term that connotes something fleeting and/or transient. See Ecclesiastes 1:2.
Copyright © Menachem Kaiser 2012
Menachem Kaiser was born in Toronto, Canada, and graduated from Columbia University in New York. He is a recent recipient of a Fulbright Fellowship in Lithuania, where he taught Creative Writing and Modern Jewish Culture in Vilnius University. His work has appeared in Slate, Vogue, The Atlantic, Tablet, and is forthcoming in a bunch of literary journals. Menachem is a proud alum of the Toronto School of Circus Arts.