By Aaron Kreuter
As soon as I heard the sex of the baby I knew what it meant. It meant a decision; it meant confrontation; it meant a staring contest with tradition. Needless to say, once I had started thinking about it, I couldn't stop; I was stuck, at a loss, transfixed. And Rob, well it would've been easier if Rob felt strongly one way or another, if at no other time this was where some strong male guidance was needed, but all he would say, looking up from his computer or his book, was: you know that in the end we’re going to go through with it, right, so why worry so much? Eh, Orly? Is it really worth the parental shit storm? Yeah, yeah, I’d counter, sitting on the loveseat, my feet on the ottoman, my belly a planet, yeah, yeah, but doesn’t it just seem like something we wouldn’t do? Isn’t it just so not us?
It amazes me how much Rob still surprises me. I would have put money down that he would hold a very strong opinion on the matter, but he has seemingly given up before the fight has even begun. A part of me says maybe Rob’s right, why push against something so huge, so benign, the whole weight of Jewish history imploring us just to get on with it, but it’s not easy like that for me. There’s something real, something powerful, impelling me to resist.
Alone in the kitchen I sit in the blue wash of the computer. I open a browser.
I will read. I will research. I will become an expert on the covenant, on the medical debate, on the five-thousand-year history of the act, generation after generation, ceremony after ceremony, marker of difference after marker of difference. I will let the anonymous internet purveyors of opinion and vitriol fight it out for me. The anti-Semites. The fanatics. The even- keeled—a rare breed in the comment sections, I know, but perhaps exactly what I need. I imagine the moment of realization, the answer crystallizing, the path becoming clear, the doubt evaporating.
I type in the word that suddenly so much hinges on. A single, stupid word.
You know why you're so hung up on this, Rob says, rustling the newspaper. I’m drinking from a gallon of orange juice. I have a client meeting in half an hour and I’m still not dressed. I started my apprenticeship as a wedding planner in my second year of university, and I’ve been doing it ever since. Planning a wedding is an opportunity for the fiancés to dry-run all the tensions and arguments and reconciliations that will get them through fifty years of marriage, and it’s my job to absorb it all, take the brunt of a half-year of stress over the bouquets, the colour schemes, the late-night freakouts over the seating list, to absorb it and to transform it, and then, finally, to steer them through the magical night itself, make the dream on my clipboard a reality. To say I’m looking forward to the impending time off would be a gross understatement. Rob lowers the paper and looks me in the eye. You know why, don’t you? Marni.
I tilt my head back and chug the thick liquid, juice spilling out of my mouth and onto my shirt.
You know that right? That it's Marni?
His new book is on the history of Esperanto. The idealistic dream and humbling failure of a self-made language. I want to yell who gives a fuck about Esperanto.
This is all your fault, I say instead. You and your patriarchy.
Rob gets up and does his little dance, elbows in at the stomach, fists and head bobbing to some private rhythm. It gets me every time; I almost barf orange juice.
Marni and her crazy, he says, stooping down to kiss my round stomach.
Marni and I could be a case study for how inconceivably different two girls could become, two girls who from the ages of five to nineteen were so similar. Best friends from the moment we compared lunchboxes on the first day of kindergarten. From then on: the same haircuts, the same posters, the same summer camps, the same plans.
It amazes me now how after spending a whole day at school together (and most likely a good chunk of the evening) we could talk on the phone for another two, three hours, every single night, our mothers knocking on our doors telling us to go to bed, Marni calling back from the basement on her father’s business line after getting yelled at for being too loud. (Rob and I don’t talk nearly as much: our conversations are open, incredible, but they last for minutes, moments.)
In grade eight we called two boys we knew had crushes on us and made out with them in Marni’s room, she and her boy on the bed, me and my boy on the floor. We ate grilled cheese after, watched cartoons, delighted in our naughtiness.
Our first boys. Our first cigarettes. Our first vodka shots. Our first hangovers. We shared books, clothes, bands, university classes, a winter and half a spring of veganism.
The summer between second and third year spent at my parents’ cottage while they gallivanted across Europe, a constant stream of friends and parties and drugs. We dropped acid by the lake, talked about our futures, irrevocably entwined, our children calling us aunt, our neighbouring houses in Kensington Market, in San Francisco, in the 5th Arrondissement, our lives as free-loving professors of cultural studies (this was the summer I met Rob; we wouldn’t date for years still, though he made out with Marni on the floating dock, a fact I didn’t tire of pointing out during our first years together).
Then … then what? Then something changed. That December we both went on Birthright, a free ten days in Israel too good to pass up, even if up until now Israel had meant very little to us and we had barely given a thought to it; and though we both drank rivers of vodka and slept with one or two boys on our trip as well as a soldier each, being on that bus plummeting through the desert started something in Marni. When we got back to Toronto she took one of those six-week classes at Labriute where they pay you to sit and listen about how special it is to have a Jewish soul, and then she took another, and by the spring she was wearing skirts and not using the phone on Saturdays. Too much LSD this summer, I joked at first, but as her absence from my life became real I quickly stopped. She took a leave of absence from school, went to Israel to study in Jerusalem. Called in the middle of the night to tell me how important it is to be a traditional Jewish woman. How all those guys we've slept with, how it’s all right, as long as we now see the error of our ways.
It’s a phase, I said, to my other girlfriends, to myself. A phase. She’ll come back to me.
The last wedding before my self-imposed mat leave. I imagine myself spending the day in bed, waiting for the moment when my life changes irrevocably. I imagine Rob feeding me birdlike from his open mouth. If I suggest it he’ll probably do it. My crazy historian. The wedding’s at a reception hall downtown, near the water. A pretty, petite Chinese girl marrying a hulking Jewish man with curly copper hair. They’re both doctors. The wedding party is almost entirely doctors. The bride is wearing a simple white dress, an elegant black sash around her stomach. A mermaid to my humpback whale. I cry during the ceremony, standing at the back of the chapel, clipboard in hand.
The party goes well. Almost all of the speeches, anecdotes, jokes and promises have to do with the hospital, the operating room. I watch as the alcohol and music work their magic on the guests, the transformation from stiff and formal to loose and sweaty. The usual wash and pull of a wedding. There’s a bit of a scene when the security guard, a large, mustachioed man, grabs the microphone from the bride’s brother and accuses everybody present of conspiring to steal his pen, which someone had borrowed to sign the guest book and never returned. His most favourite pen. Around midnight I grab the bride by the arm and march her into the bridal suite, push her into the bathroom. I lift her dress. Sit, I say. Pee, I say. (Even after so many years Rob still doesn’t believe that someone can forget this most basic of bodily functions, but trust me, I’ve seen what happens when brides are left to their own devices on the best night of their lives.)
The bathroom is so small that there is barely room for the three of us. Her face slackens with relief. Her hand finds itself on my stomach. I'm still holding her dress. She looks up at me with her big brown eyes. Is it a boy or a girl, she asks.
A boy, I say.
We cry. For different reasons, but it doesn't matter.
Marni had phoned me five weeks before my own wedding. Rob had just finished his first book then, and I was still learning to fear the long-distance ring.
Hey Marn. How's New York? I remembered too late that she goes by Miriam now, but she didn’t correct me.
It’s great Orly. We’re actually leaving for a while. Smuli got a contract to teach Talmud in Hebron; we’re going in the fall. We spoke with our rabbi, and I don’t think we’re going to be able to come to your wedding. We’re worried about you Orls. We’re worried about your children. You know that if you don’t get married in an orthodox Shul their souls won’t be Jewish right? Is that fair to them? Don’t do it for yourselves Orls, if that’s how you want to think about it. Do it for them.
I was winded. Wounded.
Don't call me Orls. Silence, the need to retract. I forced a laugh. That was a long time ago, wasn’t it? I said, trying to sound light, fluffy.
Yes, it was. Listen Orly. Smuli wants to send you some literature. He’s worried about you. He knows how much you meant to me growing up. He likes you. Rob too, though his politics are misguided. It’s not too late to change your mind you know. If not for you, for your future children. It’s what HaShem wants.
I didn’t know what to say so I said nothing. I didn’t know the person on the other end of the line. I gave Marni my mailing address. The conversation broke down. Hanging up, I wished we weren’t getting married by a rabbi at all, even the guitar-playing, lesbian one we found after months of searching. Why couldn’t you have been a Christian, I yelled at Rob after telling him about the phone call, wrestling him to the kitchen floor, or a Hindu?
Imagine if I was Muslim, Rob said, flipping me over, tickling my armpits. Marni’s head would have popped off! I was laughing from the tickling, tears streaming down my face (will I ever be thin like that again?). Rob has had close friends find orthodox Judaism too, but for him it’s different. They can still laugh and watch sports. Rob is so comfortable in his beliefs, in himself, that he just shrugs off their attempts to convert him, to guilt him.
But not me. Not with Marni. With Marni I feel torn, angry, small.
I know that whatever I do will be in relation to her. Either in opposition or in compromise.
I can’t help it. I want to oppose.
How about some pickles and ice cream? Rob says. He's wearing an apron, slicing eggplant with a butcher's knife, the large bamboo cutting board filling with the thick discs. For weeks he’s been trying to entice me with the strangest combinations he could think of. Waffles and mayonnaise. Herring pizza. Baked bean popsicles. I’ve been a disappointing pregnant woman though, craving nothing more than cheeseburgers, Nutella on toast, mounds and mounds of bacon. The vegetarian teenager inside me is appalled.
What are we going to do Rob? I can't go through with it. Why should we make decisions for him?
Rob cuts the bulging purple fruit into perfect circles, light flinging off the rectangle of the blade.
Children need circles, I think.
Salt, Rob says. We need lots of salt.
I stand at the bay window in my bedroom, watching the street. I can hear Rob moving around the kitchen below me, whistling as he unloads the dishwasher, puts on water for tea. How can anybody know what to do in this world, let alone with their children? Their speechless, helpless children? I can’t even decide for myself. What it’s about. What’s at stake. Religion? Tradition? The parents? Am I taking out anger at an old friend on my child? Am I that callous? Or does Marni just allow me to see who I really am, the outdatedness and hypocrisy of it all? Maybe after the birth it’ll be clearer.
Eight days. Eight days of wholeness before we deal you your first loss. Why? Because we’re your parents, and we say so.
I have no idea why.
Marni must have children by now, I think. The thought floors me. I’m flooded with resentment, with the familiar betrayal, and in a sudden moment of clarity I know that Rob is right, that we will go through with it. Even the thought of bringing it up to my mom, to my dad, stops my breath. I know it’s inevitable. We will mutilate our son. And then the moment is gone. It is not inevitable, my parents will get over it, everything will be as it should.
I pad downstairs, grab hold of Rob as he stands at the sink, clasp my hands around his torso, my belly pushing against his back. Maybe it’s time for that herring pizza, I say. Rob turns, his eyes sparkling.
Fucking Miriam, I say into his shoulder.
The phone rang long distance sometime between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. It was Marni, calling to apologize for any wrongs she may have done to me in the past year. Rob and I had just moved into our first apartment together, spent most of our time making love in all the different rooms, amid unpacked boxes and stacks of unshelved books. Rob hadn’t yet finished his coursework; the first book was still a twinkle in his eye.
Don't be silly Marn, what could you have done? We've barely spoken all year, I said, laughing nervously.
It's not funny Orly. This is a time of pensive thought and reflection, a time to make right. HaShem has set apart these days for us to take stock. Even though I had only met Smuli twice before, I could easily hear his voice, his cadence, behind Orly’s words. They had met in Israel a year before and had been married for six months. Their wedding was in New York, in a basement of a shul. A portable wall on the dance floor separated the men from the women. I spent most of the reception sitting in my chair, watching Rob get drunk with all the black-hatted, big-bearded men on the other side of the room. He had them in stitches. (What were you saying that was so funny? I asked on our way back to our hotel. Rob laughed. I was telling old Yiddish jokes, he said.) Smuli’s speech was about not bowing to false idols, and for examples he gave television, secular learning, and the pursuit of money. How could I help thinking he was talking about Rob and me? Marni hadn’t asked me to help with the wedding, or to even be a bridesmaid.
I thought about bringing this up now, on the phone, but decided not to. Would Marni really apologize for something she probably didn’t even know she did?
All fall the year after my wedding—my low-key, tasteful, fun wedding—I expected to hear the long-distance ring, Marni calling to apologize, to say our friendship is more important to her than what some rabbi says. Nobody but banks I don’t have accounts at, cruise-ship horns announcing my big prize.
I stand by the window, thinking of Marni, of our lost friendship. Even after so much time I still feel severed. Halved. Sometimes I am stupefied with guilt. I think of the little boy being synthesized from pieces of me, the movement of my body, the smells and curves of my memories. Will Rob’s eyes, his intelligence, his certainty, make it into the mix? I think of Abraham, progenitor of so much trouble, doing it to himself at the age of ninety-nine, more than old enough to know what you want. Who you are. I think of my parents, my father stern and lecturing, my mother crying inconsolably. I fill with exhaustion, with numbness, with resignation. I will blink first. I picture me and Marni as teenagers, trying on each other’s clothes in her bedroom, laughing for minutes at a time, melting over our latest rock star crush, his poster on the wall, gorgeous, talented and unattainable, pondering late into the night what our forbidden offspring would look like.
Aaron Kreuter is the author of the 2016 poetry collection Arguments for Lawn Chairs (Guernica Editions), and the forthcoming short story collection You and Me, Belonging (Tightrope Books). He lives in Toronto.