I Am My Beloveds
(Excerpt from a Novel)
By Jonathan Papernick
Shira sat between Ben and Liz, her damp hands clutching both Ben’s and Liz’s as the lights went down. They were seated third row center for the performance and Shira was more nervous than Ben had ever seen her.
The temple’s president appeared, and introduced Shira’s father with a lengthy, eye-roll-worthy, superlative-filled salutatory. You would think Cantor Joel Weissmann was the second coming of Al Jolson, Pavarotti, and Frank Sinatra, the way that Morris Lookstein carried on.
“He’s got a voice,” Shira said, “but this is ridiculous. This will do his towering ego no good.”
Liz laughed and shushed Shira.
Ben tried to relax as Shira’s father took center stage. Ben recognized many of the songs and was surprised how much he enjoyed himself. This material was much better than the liturgical stuff Ben had been forced to sit through over the years, and he saw his father-in-law in a new light, his polymath skills on full display. The show ended with a rousing rendition of Neil Diamond’s “America,” in which Cantor Weissmann was joined on stage by a family of Syrian refugees that the Women’s League had sponsored to resettle in Boston.
After a lengthy ovation, Liz turned to Shira and said, “Did I see your dad do a thing with his hips up there? Or am I crazy?” Liz laughed, thrusting out her own hips.
“He can be so mortifying,” Shira said.
“But he’s good!” Liz said. “I got all weepy-eyed during his ‘Sound of Silence’ duet.”
It was a feel-good show, and Ben had almost forgotten the true purpose of the evening until he saw Shira’s expression darken as her mother made her way over, side-stepping an elderly couple with an unmistakable look of determination on her face. Shira’s body stiffened.
“It’ll be fine,” Liz said, touching her lightly on the hip.
Ben told Shira that someone must have slipped some cheese into his lunch salad and his stomach was upset, so he had to go to the bathroom. Shira’s mother told Ben to meet them afterward for a celebratory drink with the cantor, his agent, and the fawning Morris Lookstein.
Ben waded through the crowd, legs bowed, desperate to find the bathroom. Shira called after him, “Ben, don’t be long. Please.”
After finishing in the bathroom, Ben managed to find the “Family Suite,” a sterile living room facsimile earmarked for mourners to gather in privacy after funerals, and before he’d even opened the door, he heard Cantor Weissmann’s voice saying, “I feel like Spencer Tracy in Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner. What the hell is going on here?”
Shira’s father stood in the middle of the room, thick-framed eyeglasses on his face, tie loosened, nervous fingers combing through his hair. Shira and Liz stood before him, hands woven together in unity. Shira just stared at her father, wordless, foot tapping on the carpet.
“Ben, you want to help me out here?” Cantor Weissmann said, turning to Ben. The cantor’s face was flushed and his eyes were wild, shifting from Shira to Liz and back to Ben. “This is a joke — we’re on Candid Camera, right? This was supposed to be my night. This has got to be a gag, Jeff,” he said turning to his agent for confirmation. Jeff, a slick-haired shark in his late thirties or early forties, shook his head, and said, “You know what? I’ve got a make a few calls. We can circle back later about the show.” And he excused himself. He was followed by a sheepish Morris Lookstein who offered a mumbled, “Great show tonight,” and nodded his head meaningfully at the cantor before clicking the door shut.
Shira’s mother sat alone on the couch, purse clutched on her knees. “Joel, why don’t you try and use a more productive tone?”
“What tone?” Cantor Weissmann snapped. “I’m not using any tone.”
“Daddy,” Shira said, “I love Liz. What can be wrong with that?”
“But you are married to Ben. Ben is still your husband, right?”
“Yes,” Ben said. “I am Shira’s husband and she is my wife.”
“I don’t understand,” Cantor Weissmann said. “Is this some sort of hippie commune orgy thing?”
“Relationships change, they evolve,” Shira said.
“So this is evolution then?” Cantor Weissmann asked. “Not a betrayal of your marriage vows? This sounds like irresponsibility of the highest order. Barbara?” he said, seeking backup from his wife.
“I say nothing,” Barbara said, twisting her lips and locking them with an invisible key.
“There is nothing wrong with you being a lesbian,” Shira’s father said. “I accept that. I’m all for experimentation. But I thought you’d be over that by now.”
“This is not a phase,” Shira said. “This is me.”
“So you’re going to leave your husband now for —” he paused — “that?”
“Nobody’s leaving anybody. We are polyamorous, and we all respect and care for each other.”
“Absurd,” Cantor Weissmann said. “This sounds like nothing more than hedonism, selfishness, and irresponsibility.”
This conversation was getting out of control, and Ben couldn’t stand by and let Shira’s father attack her and their lifestyle when she most needed his support.
“Can I say something? Please?” he said.
Shira’s father nodded and everyone in the room turned toward Ben.
“What we have is the furthest thing from selfish. How can all this love and caring be anything but a good thing when Liz has our baby? A child needs love and it will be surrounded by love.”
The room fell silent and Shira went pale.
“What did you say?” Cantor Weissmann asked, his massive fists clenching. “The illustrated girl is having whose baby?”
“Is this true?” Barbara asked, leaning forward with interest.
Of all the stupid, thoughtless things Ben had ever said, this might have been the worst. He, Shira, and Liz had driven together to a place called Fertility Solutions on Route 128 where Ben had been locked in a fluorescent-lit room with a stack of porn DVDs and magazines, and a plastic cup which he was ordered to fill and leave for the nurse. After analysis, Ben’s semen showed high motility, excellent concentration, perfect PH balance, and beautiful sperm morphology with sixteen percent of his little guys looking like perfect oval-headed tadpoles ready to strike. Liz, at twenty-seven years of age, was nearing the end of her fertile prime but still had a robust ovarian reserve that would be the envy of any woman hoping to conceive. Ben was going to get Liz pregnant and soon.
Ben assumed Shira and Liz had told Shira’s parents about the baby while he was in the bathroom, and now he just wished he had kept his mouth shut. He crossed the room and took his place beside Shira, grasping her free hand in his. “Yes,” he said. “It’s true. Shira and I want a child and this is the best way for us to do this. We are a family.” He paused, measuring his words. “A twenty-first century modern family.”
Shira gave Ben’s hand a supportive squeeze and whispered, “Thank you.”
“I’m stunned,” Shira’s father said. “I am actually speechless. What do you expect me to say to this?”
“For starters, you can say, ‘I love and support you.’”
“Don’t try and pull that,” Barbara said. “You know we love you no matter what. It doesn’t mean we have to approve of everything you do. I can assure you that your father and I love you even when you make mistakes.”
“You’re saying this is a mistake? Having a child with a woman I love? Do you know how many times you told me you wished you could be a grandmother? Too many to count. Do you know how difficult the hysterectomy has been for me?But I refuse to let it define me. And now, you’re going to give us shit about this?”
“No need to get riled up. We are not ‘giving you shit,’” Shira’s father said, throwing air quotes. “We just want to interrogate this because the consequences of this decision will affect more than just you and your little ménage.”
“Oh, come on,” Shira said. “Don’t start with that patronizing bullshit.”
“Darling,” Shira’s mother said. “If we didn’t question your choices, we wouldn’t be doing our job as your parents.”
“Well, that’s where we disagree. I need your support, not your — what even is this? — disapproval? I don’t even know what you are getting at.”
“Have you thought about the logistics?” Barbara asked. “How is this going to work when the child is here?”
“You know, I’d rather not talk about this right now.”
“You need to, Shira,” Cantor Weissmann said, his voice firm and authoritative. “What are people going to say?”
“So this is what it’s all about?” Shira pulled her hands from Ben’s and Liz’s and stepped forward so she was nearly nose-to-nose with her father. “It’s all about you, isn’t it? I know why you didn’t want us to adopt, why you wouldn’t front us the money, why the whole adoption thing caused you so much discomfort and hand-wringing. Because you, Mr. East Coast Liberal Cantor, were afraid you’d end up with a black grandchild or a slanty-eyed Asian baby.”
“Shira!” Barbara said.
“How dare you!” Cantor Weissmann said, his red-hued face afire. “I idolized Michael Schwerner and Andrew Goodman. I marched on Washington and heard Doctor King speak live when I was thirteen years old. I have spoken up for racial equality all my life.”
“Stop!” Liz shouted. “Everybody just stop. I need to say something, and you all need to listen.”
Shira’s father crossed his arms on his chest. His eye bags were an ashy, unhealthy hue. Shira’s mother tilted her head, an inquisitive look on her face, eyes narrowed in concentration.
“You don’t have to do this,” Shira said. “I can defend myself.”
“I know,” Liz said. “But this isn’t just about you anymore.”
Liz loosened her updo so her bottle-blonde hair fell down her back, the bright pink tips visible now. “I came here this evening wanting to impress you, wanting you to like me, because it is important to Shira and to our future together. But there’s something else you might want to consider: whether you impress me, whether I like you. I am going to carry Ben and Shira’s, and my, child. You can choose to accept reality for what it is and be part of the life of the child, who can never have too much love, or you can fight us and make yourself irrelevant. The choice is yours. There’s nothing you can do to change our minds. We are a package deal. You get us, or you don’t get us, in your lives.”
“Shira,” Cantor Weissmann said after an endless silence. “Do you agree with this?”
Shira nodded solemnly and slipped an arm around Liz’s waist.
“But we don’t even know her,” Shira’s father said.
“It doesn’t matter,” Shira said. “This is my life. Are you in it or not?”
“Of course we are, darling,” Barbara said. “But—”
“No buts,” Shira said. “Yes or no.”
“May I speak?” Cantor Weissmann said. “Without getting everyone all — what do they say now — triggered?”
“Fine,” Shira said.
“Good,” Cantor Weissmann said. “Dialogue is a good thing and it should not be seen, out of hand, as a threat or disapproval. These revelations just hit us when we least expected it. In the name of fairness let me speak my mind without threats of emotional blackmail.”
“Emotions are high,” Barbara said. “And perhaps some things were said —”
“Don’t try and minimize,” Shira said.
Cantor Weissmann twisted the signet ring on his finger and cleared his throat, which Ben noticed, was raw and edgy after a night of belting out the Jewish-American songbook. “I have a number of concerns about the situation,” Shira’s father said. “Believe me, if I didn’t have questions, I’d be derelict, not just as your father, but as a community leader. You have no idea how difficult parenting is, even under normal circumstances.”
“Normal?” Shira said.
“Let me speak,” Cantor Weissmann said. “You have no idea the world of confusion you will be raising this child amidst. You know I am a supporter of same-sex marriage, and it was a process for me to get there, but I always end up in the correct place.” Cantor Weissmann’s certainty was astounding.“You wouldn’t buy a car without asking a hundred questions, or make a dinner reservation at a new restaurant without asking a question or two.”
“What makes you think I haven’t asked a million questions, haven’t thought through every possibility?”
“Answer me this then: Will this child be raised Jewish?”
“That’s your first concern?” Barbara asked.
“If the child is not raised as a Jew, I have failed as a father.”
“Goddammit, this is not about you!” Shira shouted. “Can’t you just think about someone else’s perspective for once? I’m not your chattel.”
“You’re not going to turn your back on your heritage.”
“I am a thirty-one year-old woman. And yes, we’re going to raise the child Jewish. Liz is willing to convert, though I would never insist. But I resent how you’re trying to bigfoot me here with the power of five thousand years of history on your side. I know what I’m doing.”
“So the child will grow up in a Jewish home?” Cantor Weissmann asked, shoulders relaxing.
“I’m still the same person I’ve always been. My values haven’t suddenly changed just because I’ve fallen in love with Liz.”
Cantor Weissmann seemed to have aged twenty years in the past few minutes. His shoulders were slumped, his voice was strained. “Shira, I love you and I want to support you. But this is a lot for me to digest all at once. I’m going to need some time to process. Will you give me that time, please?”
“Yes,” Shira said, smiling a small smile. “Of course. But don’t take too long. You’re going to be a grandpa, like it or not.”
Cantor Weissmann smiled and embraced his daughter, holding Shira in his arms for a long time, exhaling softly into her hair. He let go of his daughter, then squeezed her shoulders, looking her directly in the eye. “It’s a child’s job to make a parent crazy, and a parent’s job is to love that child regardless. You’ll learn that soon enough.”
He kissed her on the cheek, then spun to shake Ben’s hand in a crushing compensatory handshake. Then he shook Liz’s hand as well.