Korach

 

 

Korach

By Sharon Solwitz

 

 

They assembled against Moses and Aaron, and said to them, “You take too much upon yourselves, for the entire congregation are all holy, and the Lord is in their midst.”        
                                                             Korach, 16–3
 
 
 
Melissa’s mother was dead, siblings scattered in distant towns, her childhood nothing she wanted to revisit, so friends, she would say, were her family. She would pick you up from the airport at night when she had to work the next day, she would bring soup and vitamins when you were sick, she never talked behind your back and if other people did she set them straight.
 
Thea Lieb she had known since their waitressing days, when they were both single with artsy aspirations. She saw Thea in whatever play she was in, no matter how small the part; Thea read her poems.. When Thea, now Lieb-Feinstein, had trouble getting pregnant, Melissa was in her first year of law school, but she drove her for shots and ultrasounds, and hosted the baby shower with Laura Beth and Thea’s sister Gaby, their jaws sore from blowing up balloons. The man Melissa married (at thirty-six, the last of their group) was Thea’s husband’s colleague at the university. At the wedding Thea gave a toast: to the old-fashioned fix-up date. During their still regular phone calls they mulled over vicissitudes and about one day vacationing together (after Thea and Allan’s children were grown). Richard didn’t want children and Melissa concurred; the oldest of four, she’d done more, she said, than her share of childrearing. But she enjoyed and loved Thea’s—Nate, and then Dylan.
 
Then eight or nine months ago Nate was diagnosed with cancer—sweet-tempered, quirky, smart Nathan, whom she used to babysit. When Gaby called to arrange visitation shifts, Melissa signed up. But all she could manage was to send well-wishing gifts—books and expensive, non-violent computer games. She did not go to the hospital and she visited the house exactly once.
           
The Lieb-Feinsteins lived in Evanston, thirty minutes by car from Melissa’s law office. She brought The Once and Future King for Nate and a book of jokes for Dylan, after work and before dinner so she wouldn’t have to stay long. Nate was playing chess with a friend at the kitchen table, Dylan was doing the play-by-play and whining for his turn, the radio was on, Gaby and Thea were making soup—a loud, merry group. Nate wasn’t thin but she knew he was bald under his Cubs hat, and his face without eyebrows made her think garden slug (stop, Melissa!), and the membrane—fragile, permeable—between life and non-life. She ran to the bathroom to cry in private, then stumbled back to a place just beyond the kitchen door and called out her goodbye, averting her blotchy face. “I’m getting sick, I don’t want to infect you guys.” Thea phoned that night to see how she was. Three days later she got a note from Nathan: Dear Aunt Melissa (the boys called her aunt, a courtesy title). How come you always know what I like to read!?! Richard wasn’t home. She put her head down on the table and started crying again, galumphing sobs that hurt her throat. She could not bring herself to visit again. Her best was an occasional call to Thea’s landline when she thought  no one was home.
           
She had been managing this contrived game of phone tag for several months when another letter arrived from the Lieb-Feinsteins. It was big and square with blue calligraphy. A death announcement? Her hands shook. Did Jewish people send such things?
           
She put it in her purse till the next day at work. It was a bar mitzvah invitation:
 
Theadora Lieb and Allan Feinstein
request the honor of your presence
9:30 AM on 5 July 2002
at Temple Beth Emet where
Nathan Harvey Lieb-Feinstein
will be called to the Torah
           
The gush of relief was physically painful, like blood flowing back to frostbitten toes. Following the service was lunch and bowling at Marigold Lanes—although Thea and Allan used to make fun of bowling, as they made fun of organized religion. How brave they were. What a coward she was. Craven, she said to herself, gazing out her office window onto the busyness of Chicagoans fifteen stories down. A personal injury lawyer known for her loathing of corporate indifference, she had many words with which to scourge herself.
           
On the tiny reply card she circled will and for emphasis crossed out will not. She added “joyfully” though it the word seemed overwrought. I will joyfully attend. I, not we, since Richard had a party phobia. Gatherings of more than six felt like a mob to him, as if someone would soon be lynched. A full professor, he abjured faculty meetings.
 
 
 
Thea Lieb-Feinstein had a cake problem. The one they had ordered served 75–100, but almost everyone had said yes, old aunts and second cousins, friends on both coasts; it was more than heart-warming. She and Gaby stood in the kitchen passionately self-criticizing—why had they left it till now?—when Allan passed through. “Honey,” said Thea, batting theatrical eyelashes—it was like a play with her starring—“would you mind running over to Costco?”
           
He groaned, not unhappily. Gaby said, “Isn’t it nice to worry about this kind of thing? Someone might miss dessert?”
             
“We’re multi-faceted worriers,” Allan said. “We can worry about more than one thing at a time.”
           
“Speak for yourself,” said Thea. Still, she felt a pulse of love for her husband, something that occurred only rarely since Nate was diagnosed. “Please, Allan. Mocha or vanilla raspberry. And buy one of those cake-squirter things. To write Yay Nathan!” She was exhilarated and terrified, as she used to feel just before going on stage.
           
“I’ll get two cakes,” said Allan. “We’ll take them to the food bank, whatever’s left.”
           
She put her arms around him. They pressed their hopefulnesses together into one possibly convincing hope while Gaby raised her eyebrows.    
 
“I guess I’ll go make the Costco run,” she said. “What do you say, lovebirds?”
 
 
 
The night before the Lieb-Feinstein bar mitzvah, while Richard read in their bed, Melissa tried on dresses. One was too casual, one was stained; her favorite, the black silk, looked funereal. Richard looked up from his book. “You’ve got a surfeit. Is that what happens to girls who grow up deprived?” She ignored his teasing but he was unfazed. “You could wear a bikini. It’s going up to ninety tomorrow.” When she hinted at deeper layers to her impasse, though, he declared himself puzzled. She didn’t have to go to this thing. It was one of the pleasures of being d’un certain âge. Instead of attending the ceremony, they could visit tomorrow with Nathan’s gift. Far more personal.
           
He beckoned her over and began to massage her shoulders, which usually aroused her—sex with him was a dependable joy (because, he said, they didn’t have to worry about waking the kids). A Shakespearean, from time to time he’d woo her with obscure lines of sixteenth-century prose. “I will graze on thy lips,” he murmured against her cheek, and when she failed to respond, he sank to his knees. “If those hills be dry I will stray lower, where the pleasant fountains lie.”
           
He took a breath of her, he loved her smell and taste—what a gift. But tonight she could barely attend to him. There was no question of missing the bar mitzvah. She was ashamed, she couldn’t stand herself, for avoiding her friends in their time of need.
           
“Would you like me to come with you?” he asked.
           
She was glad for the offer, but gave a sad laugh. “But you hate this kind of thing.”
           
“But I love you.
           
Every once in a while, despite her best efforts, she was assailed by an image from what Richard called her deprived childhood. Five kids, no father. But in this memory there is a father. She is sitting on his lap and he is telling her something he wants her to remember. “Forgive me,” he says, sad and humble before his daughter. According to her mother, she dreamed it. “He wouldn’t have said anything like that, not to you, you were only four, I doubt you’d remember.” But she did remember the slightly sandy tone of his voice, as if there were something in his throat he couldn’t get rid of. “Forgive me, I’m not a bad person,” he said, and she replied in her mind, “But you left, so what does it matter?” He moved to California and died soon afterward. “You imagined it,” said her mother, “you made it up to fill a need,” but Melissa could sometimes hear, like music, the cadence and timber of his voice: Forgive me. She couldn’t have dreamed it. She wanted to forgive him. She had a crush, entirely manageable, on Thea’s husband Allan, who reminded her of her father.
           
“Love is a smoke raised with the fume of sighs,” Richard said.
           
She tried to smile, apologized for her inattention. She looked out the window, which ran from floor to ceiling in their bedroom and living room, taller than the windows in her office building. Spread out below was the jeweled necklace of lamplit boulevards, the diamond headlights and ruby tail-lights of tiny, slow-moving cars. How had it happened, she wondered—their life in this high-rise condo with a view of the lake and the Loop and miles beyond?
           
“You’re so good, Richard, I love you, I don’t deserve you,” she said, hoping to dissolve the carapace of chill over her skin.
 
 
 
At his desk in his study in their old Victorian-style house, Allan sat doing the New York Times crossword puzzle when he should have been writing his speech for tomorrow, a task Thea had finished weeks ago, and Nate as well. Allan was not one to “wing it.” With twenty years in the classroom, still he imagined himself going blank before family, friends and the serious Jews who come to morning service even when they don’t know the bar mitzvah boy. Or worse, he feared being snide or sullen when he was supposed to celebrate Nate and the Jewish faith he had no faith in.
           
It was a hot summer night. Allan looked out his second-story window, an aluminum-clad casement, newly installed, wondering if he should close it and turn on the air-conditioner, if cool dry air would rouse him to eloquence. What was this fear? Once he had been tormented by the thought that Nate was only intelligent, as opposed to a genius. Now he loved the sound of his son’s voice in the next room, even his angry voice, always rare and even rarer these days. A glimpse of mortality seemed to have tempered Nate, the angel of death given him a talking-to. From a shy daydreamer, Nate had become unusually thoughtful, so kind and patient with his little brother that Allan could have knelt before him. “You don’t have to be that good!” he wanted to say to Nate. “Relax, kiddo.”
 
But Allan couldn’t relax. He held his hands over the keyboard as over a Ouija board. Ideas might assemble associatively, as they did when he wrote papers for publication. Thank you, family and friends, for being here with us to celebrate—
           
But celebrate what? What mattered was that Nate was alive and seemed well. His tumor had shrunk and been excised. The site was being radiated, five days a week for six weeks, a site as opposed to a tumor, and the treatment so far had been eventless. Chemo had been  bad—nausea, mouth sores, an infected port, a bout of shingles that had kept him up all night—but Nate was fine with radiation. From little dots all over his scalp, his hair was growing back curly and darker than before, and his joîe de vivre, under siege during the six months of his chemotherapy, was finding new avenues for expression. The other day, walking to the violin lessons he had resumed, Nate had jumped up and kicked his heels together, a stunt he hadn’t ever tried before, at least not in Allan’s presence.
           
I want to thank God for Nate’s recovery—
           
But he didn’t believe God had a hand in it, unless God had also a hand in the evil of Nate’s illness. He turned on the computer, looked up the Torah portion that Nate would recite tomorrow, from which Allan’s own speech might find a point of entry. It was called Korach, for one of the men following Moses and Aaron through the desert. Unlucky Korach. He had challenged the leaders’ God-given authority and been sucked down into the bowels of the earth.
           
He began typing: Thank you, God, for allowing Nate to remain with us for as long as you have deemed fit.
           
Though if God were fully omniscient, He could detect irony.
 
 
 
Bar mitzvah morning, Nathan Harvey Lieb-Feinstein stood at the mirror working on the knot of his tie. In his memorized speech he had tried to explain God’s wrath toward Korach, and Rabbi Melzer hadn’t crossed out anything major, but now Nate wasn’t sure he still agreed with himself. Looking at his face in the mirror, bonier, older than he remembered, his shoulders lost in his new suit, fingers stupid with the winding and inserting, he felt sorry for people’s imperfections, including Korach’s. The poor guy hadn’t hurt anyone, he’d only questioned what he thought was an unfair allotment of duties. He’d wanted more responsibility—was that a bad thing? Nate had felt the same shrinking in his own back and shoulders when someone else in his homeroom was elected to student council or, farther back in time, was chosen to stay after school to wash the blackboards. He looked out his window at the hot, clear summer morning, consternated by God, who had wiped out Korach and his entire family. Opened the earth and swallowed them down to Sheol, a place that seemed worse to Nate than Christian Hell. He shivered. Was this the sort of questioning that got Korach in trouble?
           
“You’re going to make a lot of money today.” Dylan stood at the door, hair slicked down, tie tied, smiling unhappily.
           
“It just goes in the bank,” Nate said, and Dylan said, “Right,” cheerful now. It was easy for Nate to make his brother feel better. “Are you nervous?” asked Dylan. “Melzer’s a dick, right?”
           
“He’s not so bad.”
           
Dylan took his jacket off, wiped his face on the lining. He eyed Nate’s laptop, a gift from Make-A-Wish, 4G with a LED screen, multiple drives for re-recording. He walked over, pressed a random key. “It’s so unfair.”
           
“Life isn’t fair,” Nate said automatically. Then he felt bad. “You can use it when we get back from bowling. I downloaded Mortal Kombat V.”
           
Dylan’s eyes widened with pleasure. “I didn’t know it was out yet.”
 
“It’s out for some people.”
           
“What’s out?” Their mother had come to the door. With three or four deft moves she tied Nate’s tie, kissed the side of his head, the top of Dylan’s head, and vanished without an answer to her question. Once downstairs, she called up to Dylan, her voice faint and breathy, “Put on that jacket of yours. Leave it at home, you’re dead meat.”
 
Nate wondered how she would greet Dylan’s widened gaming horizons. So hard to do right on all fronts.
 
 
 
Rabbi Melzer had woken early with a headache, probably induced by the parasha to be elucidated today by Nathan Feinstein. Back in December, the week of the boy’s actual thirteenth birthday, it would have been Shmot. Baby Moses, firstborn male of Jewish slaves, to be killed in accordance with Egyptian law, was instead placed in a cradle in a stream and rescued, and grew up to lead the Jews to freedom, a sequence of events that showed Yahweh’s work on behalf of the Jewish downtrodden. Simple and satisfying. But with Nathan’s illness and postponed ceremony, it was Korach that he would be reading today, along with Jewish thirteen-year-olds all over the world—in Hebrew to their congregations, followed by a discourse in their native tongues, demonstrating their worthiness to be counted among Jewish adults. And Korach would be beyond them. For years on this particular Shabbat, the exegeses of the b’nai mitzvot had wearied the chief rabbi of Beth Emet. They would explain the desert tribe’s need for hierarchy and condemn Korach’s blasphemous envy and pride, while their adolescent hearts beat for the rebel; their words were empty. Besides, he wasn’t that crazy about Nathan’s father, who seemed lacking in respect for what he, Rabbi Melzer, represented (or—why not admit it?—for him). Al Feinstein paid his dues, but nothing extra for the building fund, and looked bored or irritated the few times he attended services. Rabbi Melzer wasn’t surprised that not one of the family had shown up on Friday night. After the second boy—what was his name?—came to the Torah, they would be out the door never to return, not even for the High Holidays.
 
 
 
Having arrived at the last possible moment, in a floral print rayon dress that made her look fat, Melissa couldn’t find a place in the temple parking lot, and had to park semi-legally under the elevated track five blocks away. By the time they—she and good-husband Richard—opened the heavy doors to the sanctuary, the service had started. Melissa had been to bar mitzvahs before, but not at Beth Emet. The large sanctuary reminded her of a concert hall, with its high-domed ceiling and rows of cushioned chairs leading down to the stage. Most seats were occupied but she found two in the mezzanine that they could take without disturbing anyone. On the stage, under a raised, lighted candelabra, Nathan Feinstein stood beside the rabbi, smiling broadly. He was almost as tall as the rabbi, and he seemed to have gained some weight, though it was hard to tell in his ceremonial garb. A white shawl covered most of his suit, a white cap the hair that might be growing back. Richard squeezed her hand. But Melissa still felt uncomfortable. She had wanted Richard as a shield or screen between her and the world of her friends’ trouble, but now she rejected emotional safety; she disdained it. She let go of his hand and leaned away from him, her isolation an act of courage. And also a self-punishment that she owed the Feinsteins.
           
Separate from the force that was her husband, bit by bit she became aware of Nathan’s voice, which sounded like nothing she had ever heard before. At other bar mitzvahs the chanting had seemed rote or tentative. Boys’ voices cracked. But with Nathan’s maturation perhaps delayed by chemo, his voice was still a child’s, whole and sweet; it rose and dipped and rose without faltering, louder than one would have expected, filling all the little empty spaces in the grand hall, as if something uncontained, unexplainable, were speaking through him. Melissa’s hair stood on end. Richard whispered in her ear, “Do you think he knows what he’s saying?” A joke of sorts.
           
“Of course, he knows. He’s a really special kid.”
           
She was suddenly upset with Richard, with his phobias that, however wittily expressed, ruled their life together. She still wasn’t sure she could handle a child, but for him children were “a high-maintenance breed of dog,” and “the end of life as we know it.” At the end of their first year of marriage, when she’d brought the idea up for review, he had said, albeit gently, “Why are you changing things on me?” and she had subsided, wanting him more than children. She was close to forty. Soon the question would be moot.
 
 
 
When their son finished his Torah portion, Thea and Allan walked up the steps as instructed, and took their places on either side of him. Thea was moved by the turnout. Her college roommate had come all the way from Monterey, and every one of her Chicago friends. Even Melissa’s brainy husband, who might have Asperger’s, was there, which must have taken some doing on Melissa’s part. It was a relief, actually. Melissa had been so remote lately that Thea had wondered if she had somehow offended her. Melissa was easily wounded. Thea would call her when things got back to normal. And in the meantime there was this universal outpouring of affection here. If only her parents were alive. But Allan’s were, Florida-tanned and healthy, grinning up from the front row. There was Gaby and Tanner and their children, who came to see them almost every week. Standing on the bima with her son, whose illness seemed to have cost him nothing—in fact even enhanced, enriched him!—Thea almost wept with gratitude. The world was so good
 
She had printed out her speech but she didn’t look at it; words rolled out of her. In second grade Nate’s best friend was a boy named Arthur Rhodes, who was bright, with tons of energy and a mean streak. He would call Nate fag or fairy, not that either of them knew what these words meant. Or he would spit at Nate, anything to start a fight. Whatever Arthur did, Nate took in stride. He truly thought Arthur was funny. One day, to forestall the inevitable nastiness, she gave the boys a box of colored chalk and invited them to draw on the driveway. She was watching from the porch when Arthur started snapping the sticks in two and tossing them onto the lawn. That’s it, she’d said to herself. She was done with the little creep. She was about to call his mother to come get him, when Nate picked up two broken halves and handed one to his friend. “Now,” said Nate serenely, “we can draw with the same color.”
 
At the bima now, Thea put her arm through Nate’s. “I have not studied Kabbalah but I know the basic story: That originally the world was made of light that somehow broke into shards. That it’s our duty to gather them up and try to repair the damage.” She knew her last line but had to swallow to get it out. “Nathan seems to be a natural-born repairman.”
 
 
 
Allan knew about Arthur Rhodes, but on the bima beside his wife, he listened as if the story were new. What a son they had! Then he tried to quash his pride. He didn’t believe in the Evil Eye, but over the past months he had become fearful, monitoring himself as if he could misstep and lose everything.
           
Thea had spoken without notes, but Allan, trusting nothing, read from the single-spaced page he’d printed out toward dawn this morning. It would be less personal than hers and possibly less riveting, but it was how he thought.
           
“That I am not an observant Jew may be an understatement,” he began. Pause for laugh, said his note, and he paused, then saw dismay on his father’s face. Even down in Florida where they’d moved, his parents went to shul and kept kosher. “I’m sorry, Dad. You and Mom did all that could humanly have been done.” Laughter resounded; he tried to find a way back to his script. “I can’t promise that I’m returning to the fold. But when your child spends a year learning Torah in his hospital bed, and then stands up as a man to lead the congregation, it’s hard to ignore your Jewish past. We’re part of something called Judaism that began, for better or worse, a long time ago. And today, I believe I am speaking for everyone in this sanctified space when I declare us fortunate in celebrating one more continuity, the continued presence of Nathan in our midst.”
           
He was afraid suddenly to look at Nate, though he felt his son beside him, his close, sweet, respectful attention. Involuntarily he glanced down the row at the rabbi, who had always seemed to him too young for the job. Callow youth, he had called him in his mind, though they were almost the same age. He cleared his throat.
           
“Never having understood outcomes as the result of anything but human effort or random chance, I still don’t know whether God has relented in his test of us, or if we’re just lucky today after a spate of very bad luck. But at this moment of simple joy I want to share it. Whether or not events have an agent, I want to thank someone. So, all of you here with us, some of whom came from very far away—I thank you from the bottom of my heart for helping us through this difficult year. Dylan, thank you for tolerating with grace and humor all the attention lavished on your brother. Nathan, for being the kind of son I not only love but esteem, I am way beyond proud. And, if I am permitted to address God, out there or in here somewhere”—he opened his arms, as if inviting God into the circle of his blessing, hoping it wasn’t blasphemy—“thank you for letting us keep him.” There was one more line; should he read it? For letting us keep him as long as You have deemed fit.
           
Below the bima, spread before him, were the shining faces of his family and friends, who seemed to approve of what he had said so far. “Amen,” he concluded, hoping, if there were a God, that His or Her ears were trained somewhere else.
 
 
 
Allan was weeping. Nathan inclined toward his mother till both parents left the stage. He spoke quickly, to turn attention from his father’s embarrassment.
           
“In my Torah portion, a man named Korach came to Moses with a complaint. He thought it wasn’t fair that Moses and Aaron were the only ones who led the prayer services and made sacrifices to God. ‘God is in our midst so everyone is holy,’ Korach said, ‘so others should share in the responsibility.’ When Korach went back to his tent, Moses asked God to do something special to affirm his authority. And God opened up the earth and swallowed Korach and all his followers. Here is the English translation: They went down alive into Sheol with all that belonged to them; the earth closed over them and they vanished in the midst of the congregation.
           
“Hearing this story for the first time, many people feel sorry for Korach because God punished him so severely. But then they start to understand how things were in those days. The tribes were wandering in the desert under harsh conditions, all the good land occupied. They had to organize to make a place for themselves. So they needed a division of labor, some people doing one thing and other people another, with no room for complaining. It’s like that today, people say. In Afghanistan and Somalia, all over the world, terrorists are threatening the rule of law, so we need to tighten up, give everyone a specific job. Or there will be chaos.
           
“That’s what I thought, too. Till last night, actually, I thought Korach was a whiner. He was prideful, dangerous to the community. Then it occurred to me. Just because it wasn’t practical to do what he asked, doesn’t mean Korach was wrong. ‘God is in our midst so all the congregation is holy,’ he said, and I completely agree with him! In fact, today things have changed, gotten easier for us—Jews live in Israel and America—so God doesn’t have to swallow anybody up.  I mean, I’m not Moses or Aaron, and here I am leading the prayers!”
           
Behind him, Melzer was laughing. Which meant he’d been funny. He liked having been funny, though he hadn’t tried to be. While the rabbi praised his development over the past year as a thinker and a human being, Nathan looked up at the dome, at the candles in the ner tamid, the everlasting light, and he felt light pouring down on him. Below him in the sanctuary were his parents, his brother, friends, relatives, teachers, so many eyes. They were looking at him as if he were good, and he felt his goodness as like God all around him, a stillness beyond joy, and it was clear to him that he would never die.
 
 
 

Melissa sat beside Richard in the raised back row, transfixed by what seemed to her the drama at the bima. She felt akin to the boy, brave or innocent enough to question his own scripture. She had been unfamiliar with Korach’s crime and punishment, but now she too felt for the man who was sent to hell. Sheol: it sounded bad. Like smothery, soiled velvet hangings and human screams in the corridors. Unfairness had always disturbed her. If she were less greedy she’d be working with the Innocence Project. Even on an antidepressant, when she read about one more exonerated Death Row inmate she got a lump in her throat.

 

The lump was back now; she tried to swallow it. She hadn’t liked the rabbi, the something unctuous and self-impressed in his speaking voice, but she forgave him for being pleased with Nathan. The room filled with the rabbi’s chanting and the congregation’s responses. Rows of people stood, recited, sat back down. Richard’s arm brushed against hers. Down the row a woman coughed, and coughed again, trying to stifle it. Melissa squeezed her eyes shut. But she was crying and couldn’t stop, loud heaving sobs, inappropriate, insane. What did she want that she mustn’t ask for? How would she be punished? Her husband loved her; her agreeable job paid well. In her purse was a card with a check for a ridiculously large sum with Nathan’s name on it. Still she felt like the uninvited guest to the princess’s birth, the thirteenth fairy who ate her festive meal on silver instead of gold and whose gift was death.

 

It was a good thing they were seated in back. Swallowing her sounds as well as she could, she pushed past Richard and out through the padded doors and found her way to the street, which greeted her in a burst of humid heat. After her five-block run she unlocked the car and threw her body across the back seat, sobbing as loud as she wanted out of sight and hearing till her throat was raw, her dress and the upholstery damp with sweat and tears. Every time she took breath a new sob would emerge, submerged at times by the grinding rumble of the El train. There was no stopping any of it.

 

Minutes later Richard opened the car door. He squeezed in beside her and stroked her back, her hair. He murmured words of love. Eventually she sat up. “I know,” he said. “That was exquisitely painful.”

 
She wanted to sock him. Pound his chest with her fists. “I want . . .” she said. “I need . . .” Then, shameless, “Make me a baby, Richard.” 
           
She was still weeping, but not so violently that she failed to register the brief gap in his breath.
 
He kissed the side of her head. “You’re my baby,” he said. “And I’m yours.”
           
He had never talked like this before, in the words of rock and roll. It was infuriating.
           
“Let’s talk about it tomorrow,” he said. “When we’ve had time to reflect.”
           
“No! Say you will! You’ll try! Say it now!
 
He tried to guide her back toward the light of reason. He brought up her issues—abandonment!—things she had told him in the first months of their getting to know each other, that she thought he’d forgotten, that she wanted him to have forgotten. “It’s about your dad, right? You’re testing me.”
 
“That is just”—she was ready to scream—“psychobabble!”
           
“Look,” he said calmly, “at what our friends went through. And are still going through. Could you stand that?”
           
Yes! she said to herself, but it felt like bravado. I’m not a coward! She suppressed that, too. “I don’t know. I’m willing to risk it, I guess. Let’s be brave together.”           
           
“Melissa,” he said, “I don’t understand you.”
           
“I know that!” No tears, she said to herself. Do not.
 
He huffed a sigh, poor Richard, enraged and impotent. He was done arguing. Then from on high there came an augmenting rumble, a kind of explosion that shook the car and their bodies, breaking up the pretense of order, blasting away will and reason and even the capacity for thought. It was probably the train on the track overhead, approaching, passing, but Melissa felt the earth splitting open. They were falling, she and Richard, tumbling down to a place she hoped wasn’t Sheol.
 
 
 
Copyright © Sharon Solwitz 2014

Sharon Solwitz has had stories in magazines including Tri-Quarterly, Ploughshares and Mademoiselle; their awards include the Pushcart, the Nelson Algren and the Katherine Ann Porter. She has published a novel, Bloody Mary, and a story collection, Blood and Milk, with Sarabande, Inc. Her collection received the Carl Sandberg award and the Midland Authors prize, and was a finalist for the National Jewish Book Award. A story from her novel-in-progress appears in Best American Short Stories 2012. She teaches fiction at Purdue University in W. Lafayette, Indiana.

 



 

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