By Rivkie Fried
“Jump,” the old woman called out. “Jump into the water, meydele.”
Meydele. The old woman, the mikveh attendant, had mistaken her for a young girl. Perhaps a nervous bride visiting the ritual bath for the first time. Glancing up from the water, Minke could not suppress a smile, despite her low spirits. The old woman — Mrs. Shoner, or was it Shonfeld — returned the smile with her customary, manic glee. A single yellow tooth wobbled in the centre of her mouth, as a baby's might. Minke imagined her own girlish appearance was due to her long, unshorn hair. In twelve years of marriage she'd never cut her hair; when loosely worn, it reached almost to her waist. Of course her hair was never seen by anyone except Yitzik, when they went to bed, and the mikveh attendants. Even when Surele from next door came knocking at all hours, Minke hurriedly flung a kerchief over her head before admitting her neighbour. Yitzik was very severe about that sort of thing, reprimanding her if even a strand of hair escaped confinement and travelled down her shoulder.
Yitzik. The mere thought of her husband caused her to feel heavy-hearted, as though she'd eaten something which defied digestion. Like the Shabbos cholent which, after all these years, his mother still persisted in cooking herself and dispatching in a taxi on Friday afternoons. All night long the stew gurgled on the Shabbos hot plate, its odours permeating their small Brooklyn apartment. It was finally eaten at lunch time, the chunks of meat and kishke having amalgamated like glue. And Minke felt unwell for the rest of the afternoon and evening — never divulging this to Yitzik, of course. She was convinced the cholent disturbed her sleep on Saturday nights, causing her to start the week in a bad temper. On Sunday mornings she returned to her job at Mandlebaum's Novelty Shop, having taken Friday off. And Shabbos, of course. The Mandlebaums were religious Jews, although not as strictly observant as Yitzik and herself.
“Jump.” The old crone's voice broke into her thoughts. . “Don't be afraid, meydele.”
Minke obeyed with a sigh, heaving herself upwards, so that when she sank into the water, her hair would be entirely submerged, as demanded by law.
“And now a second time,” the attendant prompted. “You have to do it three times before it is kosher.”
Minke nodded, indicating her familiarity with the ritual, and fell back into the water, her buttocks resting briefly on the floor of the bath. There was a feeling of emptiness — peaceful, remote — with only the sound of water quietly lapping overhead. She opened her eyes for a moment, noting a blur of blue tiles.
What was she doing here? Why bother going to the mikveh if Yitzik no longer came into her bed?
He stopped one day — just like that. Without talking, explaining himself. Minke was too distressed and humiliated to confront him, her mind relentlessly pondering the sequence of events. For a few weeks, he’d appeared gloomy and slept badly. When she woke in the mornings, he was already in the kitchen, face pale, eyes bloodshot. “I’m fine,” he’d say. “Don’t fret. I’m fine.”
One evening a few months earlier, she’d visited the ritual bath at the prescribed time. When she returned home Yitzik was in the dining room, staring at nothing. He’d begun to set the table but merely stood, his empty gaze on the wall. When he noticed her entry, he brightened somewhat and resumed placing cutlery on the table. But her worried queries were met with monosyllables. No, he wasn't unwell. Had she offended him? Was there trouble at work? He repeatedly shook his head and slipped away to his library of books. In bed that night she lay awake, anticipating his advances, waiting for the soft phrase: “Minke, are you clean?” — the prelude to their love-making. But it never came.
He always knew, almost uncannily, when she'd been to the mikveh, although it was a private female matter. In happier times her return precipitated an evening of pleasant tension. They'd sit over supper, eyes averted, pretending they didn't share the same excited thoughts provoked by a fortnight's abstinence. There were times she longed to blurt out, “Yitzik, let’s go to bed right now” — but modesty inhibited her. When they retired for the night, he’d quietly ask if he might come into her bed. They slept, of course, in twin beds. “Minke, are you clean?” he’d say. She always consented, never certain if the passion that sometimes overcame her was proper. She couldn't ask; Yitzik was not a man who invited confidences. They made love in silence. Later they talked in the dark, or exchanged kisses, until he left to go to his bed.
They were not close, to Minke’s anguish. Yes, there was occasional rapture, but the intimate warmth she craved was lacking. Yitzik was so reserved — how was she to know the cause of his unhappiness? She surreptitiously watched him among his male friends on Shabbos afternoons, studying in their dining room or idly gossiping over the cake and fruit she provided. He appeared to her both animated and secretive — a stranger. Then again, to Minke all men were strangers. Her father had died when she was not yet a schoolgirl. She grew up in a household of females, the youngest of four daughters, and to this day felt ill at ease in male company.
In the ritual bath Minke floated on her back for a few moments, overcome with sadness. All at once she remembered the old crone and stood up. The mikveh attendant stared at her impassively.
“I'm sorry,” she apologised, “I just forgot myself.”
“Okay, my darling.” The old woman broke into her habitual smile. “Now you jump a third time. Just one more time to make it kosher.”
She complied without replying. The water accepted her familiarly, offering comfort. Wrinkles were forming on the tips of her fingers, but she felt no inclination to hurry. Whatever for? Only a short bus ride awaited her, then Yitzik — the terrible rebuff she felt from him nightly as they went to sleep. Occasionally he was in bed before her, scarcely visible beneath his quilt, face turned aside as she extinguished the lamp and called out, “Good night.” What was he afraid of — that she'd come and bite him? Plead that he fulfil his matrimonial duty? He had tired of her. When she wished him a good night, he sometimes failed to reply; sleep had already claimed him. Or perhaps he merely feigned sleep to avoid her.
So it went, night after night. Finally the monthly bleeding returned. Once again Yitzik uncannily divined the change in her cycle, although she was fastidiously discreet, never leaving a trace of blood anywhere. Perhaps it was only her imagination, but with the arrival of her period each month, he appeared to relax. Returning home from morning services, he'd greet her warmly, without the false, hearty tone she'd come to dread, or offer some bit of gossip overheard in synagogue. Again hope rose in Minke's heart. But each time his friendliness was short-lived.
They were childless. A tragedy, people said behind their backs. She overheard this on occasion, when some loudmouth thought she was out of earshot. But Minke's faith kept her from despair. In the early years, as she immersed herself in the ritual bath, a buoyant conviction seized her. This month — this time it will happen. She palpably sensed the child inside her, waiting to be formed in her womb. Stirring from sleep in the small hours, she heard its call. “Mother,” the child said. Or: “Mommy, Mommy.” Overcome with emotion, she'd hug herself in bed, imagining her breasts enlarged, swelling with milk.
Minke and Yitzik seldom spoke of children anymore. She was haunted by the fear that, in some unfathomable region within himself, he didn’t really mind not having a family. Indeed he was a stranger; she didn’t know him at all. Yet — there was the paradox — she also knew him very well, even the dark inner depths that were hidden from himself. But who wanted a paradox? All Minke craved was a baby of her own.
Then there was his mother, Reizl, with her injured, poisonous airs. Minke feared that Reizl silently blamed her for their barrenness. But hadn't Minke done what she could, chased round to doctors everywhere? In New York. A fertility specialist in Boston. Even the Hadassah Hospital in Jerusalem.
“After you've dressed,” the mikveh attendant was saying in Yiddish, “would you be so kind as to bring me your wet towels?”
“I'll scrub the bathtub for you,” Minke offered, indicating the emptied tub in a corner of the room. “I always do that anyway before I leave.”
The old woman appeared to think. “Thank you,” she finally said. “But I can't give you a discount for that.”
“A discount?” Minke bristled. “No, I was only offering . . .” But she broke off, realizing the woman had already gone.
Feeling bleak, Minke began drying herself. What had she cooked for supper? Oh yes, blintzes with sweet cheese. And, in no time, Yitzik's mother, Reizl, would arrive, as had become an almost nightly habit since her husband’s death two years before. At first her mother-in-law would decline a proffered plate of blintzes; Minke could just see it. But eventually she’d allow herself a tiny nibble and remain silent, features twitching with disdain as she brushed invisible crumbs from her immaculate shirt. Why was the woman always so farpitzt? Did she imagine her son was some suitor who might find her fussy appearance pleasing? Even her manner was coquettish; Minke cringed to see it. And her possessiveness — the way she came running with her pots of cholent and soup the moment Yitzik expelled an ill-judged sneeze.
Minke no longer tried to disguise her irritation with her mother-in-law. When provoked, she was abrupt, even downright rude. Yitzik, she believed, was secretly pleased, despite his pious air of consternation. “Try the kasha,” she’d practically shouted at Reizl the other night. “I made extra, just for you.” Yitzik gave a snort of suppressed hilarity, then bit his fist to collect himself. Reizl’s eyes grew small and mean. She bolted down a forkful of kasha so quickly Minke thought she would choke. “Was that tasty?” Minke asked. Her mother-in-law nodded without replying. It felt like a victory. But the following evening she was back, her toches twitching in an immodestly tight skirt. At times Minke was beset by the fear that Reizl was the true cause of their childlessness. If a man wished to stand at the head of a family— his family — he must first break free of his mother, insisting on privacy, a separate life. But Yitzik visibly cowered in his mother’s presence.
Minke opened the locker which contained her clothes and began to dress. There was a yellow stain on her skirt, perhaps egg yolk from the blintzes batter. Lately she was almost indifferent to her appearance. Waking early to the wan Brooklyn dawns, apathy crept over her heart on grey, silent feet. Oh, if only he'd look at her as he once had, stroke her face. If he lifted a corner of his quilt and beckoned her into his bed, how she would fly, bursting with gratitude. But he never did, not anymore. If he entered the bedroom while she was undressing, he gasped and hastily retreated. His reaction offended Minke: did she repel him utterly?
Her problem, she believed, was ignorance. She was eighteen when she married and very naive about the physical details of married life. In whom could she confide? Of course there were her older sisters, all pregnant at the moment, three ballooning women squashed into the couch when they visited. The kindest was Fruma Sarah, who was also the oldest and already had eight children. But Fruma Sarah, always flustered and worn, would only worry that Minke’s marriage was in trouble. Now and again, during slack periods at work, she hastily leafed through Mrs. Mandlebaum's magazines, hoping to read of marital problems like her own. But at a questioning glance from her employer, she pushed away the magazines or pretended she was only tidying the counter.
At the ritual bath, Minke emptied her locker and approached the chilly main hall. The old attendant was stooped over the wooden table that served as a desk. On it were a cashbox and a scattering of notices for charitable causes. A heap of wet, used towels lay at the woman's feet.
“Here are my towels,” Minke said by way of greeting. “I've also scrubbed the bathtub.” And she bent down, meaning to add her towels to the heap.
But the old woman surprised her. “Take them inside,” she said. “To the back room, where the washing machine is.”
Minke was taken aback. “All right.” she agreed. Then, pointing to the pile on the floor, “And these? Shall I take these also?”
“To tell you the truth, that would be a big favour. My legs, they're very weak today.”
“I know, the arthritis,” said Minke, scooping up the wet towels.
The old woman followed her with a shuffling gait. “You know? You suffer also, a youngster like you?”
“No. But you've mentioned it before.”
They continued in silence along the passage to the laundry room. As they entered, the old woman shut the door firmly. Then, to Minke's bafflement, she hurried toward the far end of the room.
“Come. Come after me,” she called out. Then, when Minke hesitated, “Come,” she motioned with an urgent wave of the hand. “Over here, quickly.”
“But the towels?”
“Leave them by the washing machine. And come now; come quickly.”
Mystified, Minke obeyed. On an overhead shelf were neat piles of fresh towels. All were navy blue and well worn. Next to them were bars of soap, nail brushes and bottles of shampoo.
The old crone, her breath escaping in gasps, motioned Minke nearer still. Pipes banged around them; a boiler rumbled half-heartedly. An oddly pleasing smell rose from the old woman, a mixture of perspiration and mint. Minke saw that she was sucking a candy.
Finally the old woman spoke. “Listen to me,” she said in a loud hiss. “Don't think I don't see the things going on around me. You have problems at home, yes?”
Minke was shocked. She could only nod.
“You're thinking: how do I know?” breathed the old woman. “Because it's written on your face. I know when my ladies have problems. Tell me, it's with the husband, yes?”
Minke, mesmerised, nodded a second time.
“Is he coming home late? Not making time for you?”
At last Minke found her voice. “More than that,” she blurted out, unable to contain herself.
“More than that? What more than that?”
The laundry room was very warm. Sweat ran down the old woman's face. Minke realized that she, too, was perspiring. She was still wearing her coat.
“He . . .” Minke began, but broke off. Her lips trembled. All at once tears pricked her eyes.
“Ay, yay,” soothed the old attendant. She reached overhead and grabbed a towel. “Here, wipe your eyes with this.”
Minke wanted to protest but could not find her voice. She hid her face in the proffered towel.
“Listen,” the old woman was saying. “Listen to me. I've seen these troubles before. Sometimes — how should I say? Sometimes the men lose interest for a while. Do you know what I mean?” Minke lowered the towel and peered at the other warily. “They lose interest in the wife,” the woman continued, “in their matrimonial duty . . .”
Minke caught her breath. Had the old crone guessed? “Is that a fact?” she managed faintly.
The attendant nodded. “Don't think this never happens.” She yanked Minke's sleeve. “Tell me: is this your trouble?”
Surrendering all attempts at dignity Minke nodded and hid her face in the towel. “But you're telling me the truth?” she whispered. “About those other women? You've heard all this before?”
Sighing, the mikveh attendant snatched the towel away. “Yes,” she replied, head tilted back, eyes straining to meet Minke's averted gaze. “This happens to many women. You're not so special. Don't you worry.”
Minke thought she would weep with relief. “But what do I do? Those other women — what do they do? I mean, when this happens. . .”
The woman regarded her thoughtfully. “Different things — they do different things. Tell me: the husband — how does he explain himself?”
“My . . . my husband?”
“Yes. Does he say anything to you about this?”
“Nothing,” Minke whispered. She swallowed and plunged in. “He doesn't say anything. To tell you the truth, I'm afraid to talk to him about this.” Something — the heat in the room — was filling her head. She realized she was sobbing. “I'm afraid to talk to him about anything these days. He's so changed, like a stranger . . .”
The old woman nodded, almost with approval. Fresh hope sprang to Minke's chest. “Yes?” she asked.
“Sometimes that is good,” said the other, nodding again. “To keep quiet, I mean. Healthier — especially when it's something delicate like this . . . a problem in the marriage . . .”
“A problem in the marriage,” Minke echoed. “But what's the good in keeping quiet? What am I to do?” A wail broke from her. “The child . . .”
How could she explain about the child who had often clamoured in her breast? Its voice had grown inaudible, as though with reproach. “I mean,” Minke stumbled, “I want a child. We both do.”
“Listen to me,” the old woman said. “Stop your crying and listen to me. If a man loses interest, if he neglects his wife's bed for a while . . .”
“A while! Mrs. Shoman, it's been nearly half a year now!”
“I beg your pardon, Mrs. Shonfeld.”
“It's not important. Listen, my child, at a time like this the woman has to make an effort.” She winked, face thrust forward. “She has to make the marriage interesting again.”
Minke shrank back, regarding the other warily. Interesting?
“But what can I do? Go into his bed and force him?” She shuddered with disbelief as the words left her mouth. Never had she spoken like this to a living soul. Yet the old woman appeared undismayed.
“Not force . . .” Mrs. Shonfeld continued in a helpful tone.
“But I've never been the one to, you know, to start it first . . .”
The crone was grinning. Grinning! “Now you have to,” she sang out, beaming with delight. “Tonight you surprise him. Go into his bed before he has a chance to fall asleep. Do for him . . .” She broke off.
“Yes?” Minke prompted faintly. A clammy dread began seeping through her.
Mrs. Shonfeld beckoned her nearer. “Do for him,” she hissed, “the things he wants. The things you never agreed to do before.”
Minke was silent. She wished to slip away, vanish from the building. The feeling of dread inside her mounted, giving way to sharp unease. Then a memory surfaced in her mind. A memory from long ago, yet one she'd never forgotten. A hot day: Yitzik and she lying in bed together. A strange bed, not one of their own. They'd been married only a few months.
“What things?” she managed at last.
Mrs. Shonfeld quietly said, “With your hands. Even your mouth, you should excuse me. I'm sure it's permissible if it keeps a husband happy.”
Minke peered at her frantically. Then she began buttoning up her coat, despite the damp heat in the room. She wanted to repress the ghastly recollection that she'd never forgotten. At one time it had rarely been far from her thoughts.
Once again the old woman hissed in her ear. “Use your imagination. You have an imagination, don't you?”
Minke rubbed her hands in agitation. Mrs. Shonfeld stepped back, appraising her with a curious expression. Could it be? No. No! She was afraid to remember. But then she hadn't really forgotten. The things you never agreed to do before.
It had happened on a hot Shabbos afternoon when they were newlyweds, staying with Yitzik's parents at a resort in the Catskills. After lunch everyone went to have a rest; she and Yitzik also retired to their room. But Yitzik was unable to sleep and there it began. He repeatedly threw off his thin blanket, complaining of heat. Suddenly he asked to come into her bed. She was surprised, because normally their sexual relations were confined to night time, darkness.
Minke forgot Mrs. Shonfeld and the sweltering laundry room with its banging pipes. She saw herself lying on the bed in the Catskills resort. She was naked: he'd requested she remove her night-dress. It felt pleasurable to lie thus, intensely aware of his eyes on her body, without the modest curtain of darkness. His gaze caused her to feel an excitement she'd never known before. Then, with a furtive but radiant expression, he began to caress her. Minke grew giddy with the recollection. And the heat that day, hotter than the laundry room in which she now stood. But then Yitzik wanted more: he asked her to lie on top of him. Afraid but also tremendously aroused, she complied, telling herself her matrimonial duty required it.
But Yitzik would not stop there. Awkwardly, she climbed on top of him, eyes half-shut against the astounding vision of their nakedness, when he suddenly gripped her shoulders and began forcing her downward. She flung at him a gaze of panic and confusion, legs straddling his naked hips. But his face was rapt and unseeing as he continued to push her, pressing her mouth to his chest, then his stomach. She could almost recall the sensation of his feverish skin meeting her lips. Still Minke could not fathom his desire and flailed at him with her arms, seeking guidance. But Yitzik was lost in some private delirium where her low whimpers of protest could not reach him.
Then a dreadful comprehension struck her. Was it that he wanted? For her to kiss him there? A startled glance at his contorted expression and writhing limbs confirmed her fears. She bolted from the bed in shock, snatched her dressing gown and fled to the bathroom. She remained there a long while, trembling with confused fear and excitement. He didn't pursue her, to her relief, and also to her muddled disappointment. In the years that followed, the incident was never mentioned, nor the request repeated. It became submerged in the realm of incredible — perhaps, eventually, semi-fictitious — events that the mind contains but, on the whole, recoils from examining.
Minke's eyes returned to the old woman's face.
“I see,” Mrs. Shonfeld said, “that you understand my meaning.”
Minke nodded in bewilderment. She wanted to cry out, No, I don't. Explain. Tell me what to do. Please tell me what to do.
But Mrs. Shonfeld was already hurrying from the room. “I have to get ready to lock up,” she said.
“Yes,” agreed Minke.
At the door the old woman paused. “Before you leave,” she said, “stop and comb your sheitel nicely.”
“Yes. I always do that anyway.”
Tell me, please tell me what to do.
But Mrs. Shonfeld had gone.
Outdoors it was very cold, her breath visible in the early evening air. Minke walked blindly, her stunned mind grappling with the events of the past hour. What exactly had Mrs. Shonfeld intimated — was it that which Yitzik had wanted all those years ago? And how did she come to be so knowledgeable anyway, an old hag like her? Minke berated herself for the uncharitable thought. But she was in a state, nerves humming with frustrated energy. Never had anyone talked to her like this old woman, whom she’d always taken for a half-wit. Minke cursed her shyness: if only she’d mustered the courage to ask Mrs. Shonfeld outright. Even begged for a few helpful tips. The mikveh attendant was strangely worldly; she would not have been disconcerted. “Tonight you surprise him.”
Tell me; please tell me what to do.
The streets were almost empty. She walked on, shivering, her eyes flitting distractedly over passing shop windows. All at once, as she paused to tighten her scarf against the wind, Minke noticed a coffee shop. The interior was clean and inviting, a warm refuge. Although her apartment was a short bus ride away, she was tempted to venture inside. Only for a minute, just to get warm, maybe order a glass of club soda. She needed a pause to collect her wits. And why not? An uncharacteristic ripple of rebelliousness went through her. It wasn't the middle of the night; little children were not abandoned at home. And Yitzik, the great tzaddik, would not return from work for another hour.
Yet, as she opened the door and proceeded toward the counter, her movements were furtive. She'd never sat alone in a non-Jewish coffee shop. After uneasily ordering a glass of soda, Minke slipped toward the back of the store, among newspaper and magazine displays. Now and again the door opened with a burst of cold air and customers entered. Some were heimishe Jews, she saw to her relief. Minke sipped her soda, regretting its coldness. But coffee would be unsafe; surely the milk wasn't kosher. Her eyes roamed the shelves carelessly, coming to rest on a magazine of knitting patterns. Recently, because of her unhappiness, knitting had ceased to engage her. Now, Minke resolved to shake off the apathy of the past months. To her surprise her spirits had revived, perhaps due to the refreshment, the unexpected pause in new surroundings. She was calmer as she began fastening her coat. It was time she started for home.
But as she did so, eyes straying to another magazine, her heart skated dizzily before lurching to a halt. A photograph of a naked woman was displayed on the magazine cover. Minke's fingers clutched the coat button she was fastening. The woman on the magazine appeared to stare at her with lewd suggestion, but also a knowingness. Minke was paralysed as she returned the gaze, overcome with a sharp, intense desire. She wished she might possess the knowledge those eyes contained. Tonight you surprise him. Thewords, uttered by Mrs. Shonfeld, returned to her mind. Surprise him.
Stop staring, she chided herself, it’s only a picture of some naked shiksa. Disgusting, to be sure, an abomination, but hardly exceptional. She'd seen pictures of this sort before, in advertisements or indecent publications perused by passengers in the subway. Yet Minke didn’t stir, overcome with a clear, terrible knowledge. Somehow she must possess this magazine. It doubtlessly contained more pictures, perhaps even instructions. These thoughts caused her to imagine she was screaming — that high, terrible cries were escaping her throat. But the shop was silent. She realized she'd unwittingly entered an area marked “Adult Reading.” From every shelf similar publications swam at her, on their covers disrobed women — and occasionally men — in poses she was too terrified to scrutinise closely. But was it proper to purchase such a magazine? Was it not sinful? Once again the old crone whispered in her ears, “If it keeps a husband happy.” But suppose Mrs. Shonfeld was a half-wit after all; who else would utter such words? An agony of ambivalence engulfed Minke. At any moment one of the heimishe customers might wander in her direction and notice the repugnant publications which surrounded her. She must act quickly. Minke seized the magazine which had first come to her notice, folded it in two and flew, with blinded eyes, toward the cash register.
The following day Minke was in a state of nerves. The previous evening she'd just managed to hide her terrifying purchase under a pile of linen in the spare room when she heard Yitzik's key in the front door. She became so agitated that, before serving dinner, she fled to the bathroom and sat doubled over on the edge of the bathtub until her pounding heart grew calmer. Yitzik didn't question her absence and, mercifully, his mother failed to arrive. Dinner passed in unaccustomed peace. At bedtime, drained from excitement, Minke fell asleep almost at once.
At daybreak she was jolted awake with the feeling that something dreadful had happened. Then she recalled the magazine hidden in the next room. Minke pulled her quilt over her head with a stifled moan of agony. But after some minutes a shaky resolve took hold of her. She would destroy the magazine. At once, without even glancing inside. Perhaps she'd act now, while Yitzik slept. Minke peered over at the next bed. Yitzik was breathing heavily, his quilt half-covering his face, which appeared soft, almost beatific, in the weak dawn light. She envied him his sleep, the contented slumber of innocence, while she lay awake, wracked with guilt and irresolution like a criminal. She must act now, destroy the evidence, perhaps burn the magazine. But a fire was time-consuming, left traces. Minke's tired mind grew dim. She succumbed to a light sleep, adrift in wispy dreams of unease. When she woke again, feeling more refreshed, her thoughts took a practical turn. Why, after going to such trouble, must she act rashly? There was no hurry. The magazine was safe; no one would discover her secret. She got out of bed determinedly, prepared breakfast and went off to her job. Although they both worked in Manhattan, Minke took the subway to the lower East Side, while Yitzik shared a transport with a few religious men to the diamond district.
As the day wore on, her anguish resumed. The magazine darted repeatedly into her thoughts: a lurid object, flashing red, like blood. Gevalt, what was she going to do? Courses of action marched across her tormented mind. Would she read the ghastly publication, examine the pictures? She was ignorant, hungry for help, for knowledge. It also excited her, brought a change to the subdued pace of her days. Her silent desperation. Might she share her secret with Yitzik? The mere thought caused her to feel faint. No — it was all dreadful, an act of insanity. Had anyone seen her? She’d noticed a few heimische customers hurrying inside, probably in search of cigarettes. But she had been at the rear of the store; no one had glanced her way.
All morning her thoughts tossed like demented waves against rocks. Optimism broke through, only to be followed by despondent fear. Her agitation mounted. She gave customers the wrong change, fumblingly producing stockings when asked for lingerie and forgot Mrs. Mandlebaum's tea. Her employer, unusually thoughtful, decided that Minke was unwell and suggested she leave work early.
The subway journey brought no relief. Minke's anguished mind fussed and shrieked in rhythm to the train. An abomination. A hundred voices took up the cry. Throw it out at once, before it's too late. Dreadful scenes of doom visited her. What if Yitzik had, for some reason, returned home early, and, searching for some innocent item in the spare room, unearthed her heinous crime? At this very moment he might be crouched disbelievingly beside the chest of drawers, his face as white as the linen which buried her shame. Gevalt! The train hissed and groaned in the bowels of the earth. Then it hurtled from the tunnel and daylight appeared, flooding Minke's eyes like a salvation. She sat up with relieved surprise and peered out the windows. The afternoon was mild, almost spring-like. Previously this had escaped her notice. Sudden hope wafted over her, igniting her natural optimism. What nonsense: Yitzik never left work early. He was as conscientious as a donkey, a trait that his bosses at the diamond company exploited. Only an empty apartment awaited Minke. Soon, after a wash and a cup of coffee, the entire episode would be resolved.
At home she ran a bath, removed her wig, and melted into the pink stillness of water. It was like floating in a lake on a hot day, far from shore. That was where she yearned to be: far from shore — from anywhere. All at once the striking of a clock outside roused her. The bath had grown tepid; daylight was fading fast. Minke got dressed and briskly left the bathroom. Pausing in the kitchen only to prepare a cup of coffee, she proceeded to the guest room.
But in the doorway she faltered. She'd always disliked the room, which was dominated by the dour Persian carpet that had once covered the entrance hall of her in-laws’ apartment. Yitzik had dragged it into their home one day, his grim demeanour suggesting he'd struggled in vain to subdue the calculating largesse of his surviving parent. Then there was the old-fashioned chest of drawers, another despised present from Reizl, who purchased and dispatched it to their home without even consulting Minke. Forcing herself forward, she imagined its round knobs regarding her like hostile eyes. She knelt on the carpet, drew a breath and pulled open the bottom drawer. Tidy piles of old linen came into view. But as her hand came to rest on the nearest sheet, courage abandoned her. A few minutes passed in a numb daze; Minke realized she lacked a strategy. Finally she finished her coffee, left the drawer ajar and went from the room. Soon a plan would come to her. But first there were chores awaiting her attention, dinner to prepare. Minke busied herself in the kitchen, on several occasions returning to eye the open linen drawer hopefully, as though some change may have occurred in her absence. Finally, as evening fell, she rushed to the room and pushed the drawer shut. Tomorrow — she would deal with the magazine tomorrow.
“Again blintzes?” Yitzik asked at supper.
“Yes, I'm sorry. I made a lot yesterday but your mother didn't come.”
“Oh, I see.” His voice sounded odd, strained. Her mind grew alert. “I see,” he repeated.
Their eyes met; he reddened and looked down at his plate. Fear darted to Minke's chest. She stared at Yitzik, trying to force him to meet her gaze. But his face remained obstinately downcast. Something had happened; he knew something. Don't panic, she told herself. Perhaps he was merely unwell. Hadn't he complained of stomach pains in the morning?
“Yitzik, are . . . are you feeling all right?”
“Me?” he asked, in the same strained tone.
His eyes were glued to his plate. Something was wrong. Dread began seeping through her coldly. He knew; he knew something. “Yes — I mean, your stomach. You said in the morning that you had pains . . .”
He appeared to listen, weigh her words, then shook his head. “I'm fine, thank God,” he said in a cool voice.
Oy, gevalt. Now he was looking at her, his face fiercely red. She tried to eat but her mouth was dry, as at the end of a fast day. Perhaps she should fast, offer penance. Somehow she found her glass of lemonade, emptying it in rapid, frantic gulps. Some minutes went by in silence. Yitzik began slicing a cucumber with inordinate slowness, the knife cutting into her heart. His hands trembled, as though he had guessed her thoughts. When would he speak? All at once a burning smell came to her notice.
“I made latkes,” she gasped, leaping to the stove. “I almost forgot.”
“I thought I smelled latkes,” Yitzik said, almost pleasantly. His tone calmed her. He was eating quietly as she returned to the table. Minke sank with relief into her chair.
“Your mother didn’t come tonight either,” she said. “I must phone her when we finish supper.”
“Don't,” Yitzik broke in quickly. “Don't phone her.”
Fresh panic assailed her. “But why?”
She peered at him, but he said nothing more. The silent room hummed with fear. In a leaden manner Minke cleared the table and served fruit compote, which Yitzik ate wordlessly. Finally he pushed his plate aside. Nodding several times, as though concluding some inner dialogue, he placed his clasped hands on the table.
“Minke, I have to ask you something,” he said. “Where were you last night?”
She nearly fell from her chair with fright. He regarded her, blinking furiously, his face aflame once more.
“Me? The . . . I went to the mikveh . . .”
“And after that?”
He knew. Gevalt, he knew. She was ruined. Minke felt unsteady, as though the blood had drained from her head. She suppressed the impulse to sink to her knees. No, she would not plead. He too was at fault; he was the cause of this catastrophe. Then, as she peeked at his crimson face, a realization slowly came to her. Yitzik wasn’t really angry, not as angry as he strove to appear. The stunning realization fortified her.
“Why,” she mumbled, “do you ask?”
“Minke, don't turn the tables. I'm asking you where you went.”
“But you're accusing.” Courage emerged from somewhere, forming words in her mouth. “So you tell me what you think you know.”
He paused with a shivery intake of breath and again nodded several times, as though an unseen person was putting questions to him. He was not a combative man and shrank from confrontations. Minke almost felt sorry for him, despite the gravity of her situation. Her eyes were fixed on his fair side locks, bobbing skittishly with each motion of his head.
“Minke, I have something to tell you. My mother phoned me today at work.”
“And is . . . is she well?”
“She was very upset. She said” — he spoke rapidly, swallowing his words — “that someone saw you in a goyish store, looking at magazines. Magazines with . . .” He broke off and covered his face. “I can't even say it.”
“Someone saw? Who saw?” Minke interjected heatedly. What had she to lose? “Does your mother have spies following me around? She's got nothing better to do?”
Yitzik thumped the table lightly, causing her to start. “Minke, she was very upset. She said — she was told — that you actually bought such . . . such a magazine . . .”
He paused with a quick, enigmatic glance at her face. Suddenly she understood that he did not know his own emotions. He was at a loss, looking to her for guidance.
“Is that a fact?” she mocked, trying to disguise her fear. “And what else did I do? Tell me; I should be told these things.”
“Minke, my mother was screaming gevalt Do you know what she said?” One hand seized his beard nervously as he blurted, “She said she'll never come into our home again.”
Minke's mind was cold, calculating. He wasn't angry. He was trying to whip himself into a state, but she saw through him. Why wasn't he angry?
“Your mother,” she finally said, “is a liar.”
Yitzik's breath escaped him in a loud rush. But as the minutes wore on he said nothing more, his manner implying that he craved solitude. She got up and began washing the dishes dazedly. Divorced — would they get divorced? Was that the next step? If only she could gauge his true feelings. She tossed an appealing glance toward him, in the dining room, noting that he hadn’t stirred. The back of his head appeared reproachful. Finally he reached toward the bookshelves, removed a volume and began reciting in a low chant. And she, in a ghastly waking dream, brought out her knitting and took up her evening perch at the kitchen table.
An hour, two hours, somehow passed. When ten o'clock finally arrived, Minke undressed in the bathroom and slipped into her bed, huddling under the quilt like a refugee in hiding. After a short interval Yitzik entered; she felt his eyes on her inert form. He too got into bed and extinguished his lamp without a word. Minke stared into the darkness. She was wide awake; sleep would elude her this night. Incredulous thoughts limped through her mind. Divorce — would they get divorced? Her life was over. Ruined. Yitzik's bedsprings creaked; he too was awake. Perhaps she should have offered to sleep in the despised guest room, as befits a couple on the brink of divorce. The thought produced a fierce pang of grief.
Suddenly a guttural sound came from Yitzik's bed. She realized he was clearing his throat. It was followed by a whisper.
Startled, she whispered, “Yes?”
“Minke, were you asleep?”
“I . . . I want to tell you something.”
She shut her eyes, steeling herself. “Yes?”
Again came the creaking of the bedsprings. “Minke, I don’t . . . I don't care about my mother.”
“No?” she gasped.
Now she was near to sobbing. Words tore from her. “Yitzik, she comes here every evening. Every single evening. We have no time alone. You know I am hospitable, you know that. But every evening?”
“Minke,” he broke in, still in a whisper, “I told you. I don't care.”
“Thank you,” she said aloud, unable to utter anything more, fearing she would disintegrate.
He fell silent. Tears of gratitude dampened her cheeks. Still Yitzik did not speak. Perhaps he'd fallen asleep. Round her the darkness thickened. The hour was late; she would try to sleep as well. Her limbs sagged with exhaustion.
All at once he spoke again, still in a whisper. “Minke?”
“Did you . . . did you really buy the . . . you know . . .”
Her mind spun. She couldn’t think how to reply.
“Yes,” she managed faintly.
“I don't know. But I didn't even look at it, I swear to you.”
“And . . . and do you still have it?”
“No,” she immediately hissed, “of course not.” Then, after a moment, “Yes. Yes, I do. But I'm going to throw it out tomorrow. First thing . . .”
There was another pause. Then Yitzik spoke. “All right,” he said enigmatically.
“All right,” she echoed his words, too tired to try to divine their meaning.
Now she felt convinced sleep would come. Her body was falling away, sinking with relief. But a creak reached her from the darkness. Yitzik was still awake.
“Minke,” he whispered at last, “are you asleep?”
“Are you clean?”
Her senses reeled with shock. “Yes.” She raised her head, noting that he now sat upright. “I went to the mikveh yesterday.”
“Yes?” Something was dancing inside her — incredulous, gleeful.
“Minke, can I come into your bed?”
“Yes,” she breathed. “Yes, of course.”