I remember the day I was married. I was so happy then. We danced at the chuppah; we laughed and cried. I sparkled in a dress that I had taken much time and care choosing, and the look on Josh’s face showed me that he treasured me, that he was utterly and completely happy.
I was only twenty-one. This is the way things are done in my world; this is the way that we live. I had followed the dance as I had been taught, the dance of courtship and little nothings, the polite exchanges and interchanges between me and him. I had been dating for two years by that point, as most Orthodox Jews do. You see, we marry young when we are Orthodox Jews. It is like a bazaar, and the men come and choose those amongst us whom they see as prettiest and most beautiful, the ones about whom they can dream, the ones who fulfill their fantasies. We smile at them and adjust our clothes becomingly, while we talk politely, never raising our voices, never speaking out of turn.
I was a little different. My name is Aurora, and this means I have the fire of the sun in me, or at least, of the dawn. With the dawn comes beauty, and they tell me that I am beautiful. I have long curls, auburn, that reach to halfway down my back. My eyes are dark as well, and they are fringed with long black lashes. They are the kind of eyes that seem to be looking on and on, unerringly, as though they have found what they sought. People often think they can find themselves in my eyes. It is not true. It is that I am looking them through and through and searching for something which remains elusive, something which I still cannot find. I found it in Josh, or so I thought.
I met him at a birthday party. Crowded, with music pulsing all around me, I was engrossed and repulsed by the spectacle. These were all people I knew, people who went to college with me or attended other colleges in the New York area. I watched them dance and play and laugh loudly, convincing themselves that they were having a good time. And then I saw Josh, who stood a little apart from them, just as I did. That intrigued me. I had determined to observe, and observe I did, noting the dark hair which fell a little into his eyes because it was overly long, and which he had to continuously sweep back. I memorized his lips, the shape of them, and decided I liked his face, which, in addition to being handsome, simply conveyed a sense of honesty I admired. He was well groomed, and his clothes fit him well. I looked at him and watched him interact with the others. Then I turned my gaze away, focusing once more on the mingling bodies, the pulse of humanity all around me. Why did I feel dead in this room that vibrated with life? And yet, if anything, it saddened me, frustrated me. I rose to my feet, determined to walk out the door after making my goodbyes. But before I could do that, I was introduced to Josh. Josh was a student at Columbia, and he was instantly witty and charming. And so I laughed with him, and teased him about his books, and soon I was taking part in a conversation the content of which I actually valued.
Josh and I were friends for a while. I would not call it dating; I am not the kind to date- not conventionally, anyway. We would go to places we both enjoyed. We laughed together, we played together. I was infatuated. Of course, I denied that to anyone who asked me about it, because there was a surety, a sense of assurance that he was of course the one destined for me, destined for me from the beginning of time. An angel announces which person is meant for whom when we are born. And I was certain, whenever I looked at Josh, that it must be he. And so we spoke and laughed and drank cups of coffee at Starbucks together, despite the fact that I hated Starbucks, and I decided he was charming and all was well.
Over time, this evolved into a stronger bond. By this point my friends were aware of the relationship, and each of them eagerly pressed me for information about myself and him, appraised me in the mirror and nodded approvingly before I would venture down the stairs and walk outside with him. He was unfailingly kind, and everything was as it should be. I was in love with him. How could I not be? Everything pointed to it. I enjoyed his company, and I pushed aside the things I minded. Why should it bother me that his interests lay in a different field than mine? That was not something of import. Or why that I was more earnestly devoted to my religion and my God than he? He had a more spiritual take on his religion; it was one that was not rooted in the books and academic sources I so craved.
It was three and a half months, and I met his parents. He met mine as well, and all was arranged. He surprised me shortly thereafter, and we were engaged. Although of course I would not profess to care overly much about my diamond, it was a beautiful one, and sparkled on my finger. And every time I looked at Josh I thought of how much I loved him, and how everything would be perfectly wonderful. Of course, I knew that we would have to work at marriage. Everyone had told me this. They had also told me that the first year would be the most difficult, and had advised me about my responsibilities and duties. But I was ready. I knew I was ready. After all, was I not flooded with feelings for Josh, and did he not return them utterly? I knew that everything was as it should be.
At my shower, my friends laughed and teased me as I ripped off the wrappings, showering the torn scraps of metallic paper to the floor. I laughed gaily and threw my head back with joy. Each gift was a practical one- a Cuisinart blender, a Black & Decker set of bowls and knives. Soon I was receiving advice about how to pick out china dishes in my bridal registry, and I ventured from store to store choosing precisely what I liked. My parents were happy for me. Everyone smiled down upon me. And I- I had eyes only for Josh. I existed for Josh, to make him happy, to help him and to heal him.
My wedding was beautiful. A lavish affair, with a varied smorgasbord (that sign of interest amongst the Orthodox), exquisite centerpieces, a simply divine band. My friends surprised me with their entertaining comments and posters, which were used as shtick. Josh and I danced and greeted people and threw each other longing looks over the mechitza which separated us. I could feel his desire, and that made me happy. But I was shy.
At long last, the guests had all departed and I was free to walk upstairs to the bridal chamber. I will never forget that first night. It was memorable because I thought that this was everything that they had spoken of, all the pleasure that was allowed me. And I was surprised, since I had expected something different. I was also shy of Josh at that time, and he of me. You see, we did not really know what to expect, and so we had to figure it out as we went along, and were not sure if we did rightly or wrongly. What I do remember is that my infatuation with him led me to feel desire, and so I was happy that first night.
We attended the sheva brachos and I presided, resplendent, in my new suits and other carefully chosen outfits, receiving compliments upon my hat, my shoes, the diamond bracelet that I had been given. So long as I was surrounded by others, I was confident; I knew that all was well. But once I was alone with Josh I felt more confused, nervous, even. Because what I began to realize was that there was not a basis for our attachment for one another, that I had married him simply because that was expected of me- that if I liked someone enough and found their company pleasant, I should marry them. But of course I did not allow myself to realize this. After all, I was Aurora, the spinner of dreams, the mistress of fantasies. I lived in my fantasy, and I was very good at fooling myself.
I did everything as I ought. I entertained him, I went places with him, I cooked for him and helped prepare the Shabbat meals. We were happy together, except that I began to realize that the things that were most important to me, those which I loved extremely, I could not talk about. They were not the same things that made his blood quicken, that made him feel. I had not realized how much I would miss a man of learning. I had thought that the fact that Josh was good, that he was intelligent, that he was spiritual about his religion and Judaism and related to it honestly, would be enough. But it was not enough. There were things I wanted to ask, things I wanted to know, things I wanted to discuss, but I was shy of bringing them up before him lest it seem as though I knew more than him. It was not that I thought he was a jealous man, or would be angry with me for so knowing. It was that I was afraid to disgrace him- or perhaps, it was that I was afraid to disgrace him in my eyes.
I had cherished a fantasy of a husband who was wiser than me, who knew more than me, whom I did not need to support but who was sufficient to himself- who did not need me, but wanted me. I had wanted someone who was my equal, but I had fallen for someone who had passed himself off as being so, but in truth was not. I realized that I had to think through my every action lest I hurt him or embarrass him, and while I did not begrudge him this, it made me less myself. I was not natural around him, not in the way that I had been before. The lighthearted and meaningful conversation we had made- the barriers we had broken- that was there, and it was pleasant, but this was not what I had dreamed of; this was not the true, deep and meaningful relationship I craved and cherished. I desired someone who would choose me, but who did not need me to lift him up, to save him, to take away the pain of the hurts he had suffered because he did not have the ability to do it himself. I desired an equal.
How was it possible that I had been so blinded? We were six months into our marriage and I could not understand what it was that I had done. I was no fool, and I had not married foolishly. We had discussed our thoughts, our preferences, our desires; we had been very candid with each other. How could it be that I had mistaken my infatuation for love? I felt very low then, as though I was the author of this deception, the one who had cruelly chosen him only to now feel trapped by this marriage, which began to be a marriage of pretense more than reality. Josh did not know me, because I was afraid to let him know me. I realized more frequently that things which I cherished, he judged, and that which I loved, he resented. It was not that he was bad to me. On the contrary, he was very good to me. And that made it all the worse. Because here he was, innocent of any plot, and yet, I did not love him and I was not myself with him.
But I tried very hard to be. I slept with him, and in that there was still passion and sensuality conceived by my mind. Desire begins with the mind, not the body, with the ability to think and to fantasize and to act upon what one desires and what one wants. And as I was beautiful, and intelligent besides, I was satisfied in that way. I conceived a child. We had been married almost a year. I was certain that with the birth of this child, with her to fill my life and to live with me, I would be happy and content, and whatever confused feelings lay within me would be totally devoted to my love of her.
I gave birth to the child, and Josh was ecstatic. The stirrings of love rekindled in my heart when I saw the joy with which he looked upon her, the way in which he cradled her in his arms. I felt myself cruel to judge this man who had only shown me kindness, and I endeavored to be better- a better mother, a better wife. I knew that I was an unnatural person not to love this man who had only shown me kindness. My friends praised me and assumed that everything in my marriage was progressing beautifully. Little did they know of the rebellion that lay dormant in my heart.
I nursed my child, loved her, told her fantastical stories of creatures and fairies in far-away lands. I let her listen to music, taught her Torah, creating fascinating tales of our forefathers and inundating her pretty sweet head with these stories. I cooked and cleaned and was a homemaker, because I would not abandon my child to the care of a nanny or babysitter. But that was all right, as I was able to write columns from home, and in that way managed to bring in a part-time salary. Josh, of course, was studying; he was continuing in chemistry. He worked during the day and studied at night, and all should have been well.
But all was not well. For my feelings for Josh did not exist, even when I guiltily pushed myself to feel them. I acted kindly toward him- I would bring him little presents, surprise him, make his favorite foods, remind him of the times we had had together while we were still dating- but he was tired, and busy, and did not often respond as I might have wished. I was not so cruel as to judge him for these lapses. I thought they were only to be expected. But what did frustrate me is that I could not find in him the source of support that I needed, while I was a pillar of strength for him, he could not be that for me. Instead, I found myself constantly and consistently forgiving him the little wrongs he did me, the slights with words, and telling myself he did not mean it. When I was very low, I found ways to occupy or distract myself, so as not to take out my anger on him- for I told myself he did not deserve it.
Yet we continued as couples do, and the child grew. We were seen together; we attended dinners and functions together, Chanukah parties and the like. People seemed to enjoy my wit, but I was brooding, and I was unhappy, and the telltale signs of strain began to show on me. My friends counseled me that a vacation was what I needed. But a vacation from what? A vacation from my household, which was- or so it ought to have been- perfectly happy? A vacation from myself, more accurately ,but that was unfair, and impossible. How could I escape from myself? And what kind of woman was I, that I could not respond to my husband as I ought?
Over this time, Josh began to change. Money was tight, and we were worried. He began to accuse me of financial excesses, when I had innocently spent what I did not know we did not have. I cut back on my spending, which had never been very prevalent anyway, but he was still angry with me. We began to fight. But all couples fight, don’t they? Yet we would fight about everything. We would fight about the school that our child would attend, where I did not like the education or the things they were teaching her, which I felt spoiled her soul and took her away from the Judaism I cherished. The Judaism she was learning was a cold, dead thing, and it burdened and oppressed her. I cried to see her in her little uniform when she went to school, that uniform she was made to wear to keep her covered to fulfill the tenets of tznius. I did not like my daughter so confined, and so unfree. But Josh saw nothing in my worries, and told me I was being meddlesome and foolish. He was busy, and soon, I was busy, too. By now I had gotten myself a full-time job, where I was respected and much enjoyed. People seemed happy in my company, and would always exclaim over my unusual name- Aurora. The dawn is a concept that attracts many, and makes them happy. It seemed that simply through my presence I was able to bring a little of the dawn to these people, and this in turn made me glad.
My Lisa took after me. She was a dreamer, thoughtful, inquiring. Invariably, she got in trouble at school for asking too many questions. I had grown fearful of Josh. It was not that he was cruel to me, or struck me, but he was worried, and stress overtook him to the point that it was unpleasant to be in our house. The tension was thick, unless we had other people over to act as a buffer between us. When those people were there, we entertained and thought ourselves happy. It is not that we were vicious in their presence, and took joy in dropping little hints and barbs that the other could detect. No, it was that we were truly able to be at ease with other people, and so we determined to practice hachnasas orchim whenever possible, to invite others to eat with us, stay with us, to take up the space in our household, that space caused by the distance between us.
I longed for him to simply come to me and confide in me, to talk to me and trust me. I wanted to confide in him and knew that privilege was denied me. He needed me to be strong for him, to hear him out and offer sound advice- for at times we still reconciled and were tender toward each other- I was not allowed to fall apart. I had no refuge; there was no one to whom I could turn. I was a mother and an accomplished database programmer; I was also a writer, but these were not the things that mattered to him. What mattered was that I be there when he needed me, tender and sweet, and be unseen when he did not desire me.
Slowly, his total dependence upon me began to repulse me. He was weak, and I despised his weakness. It was not fair of me, but it was true nonetheless. What use was he to me, when he could not help me, could not offer me the same comfort which I gave him freely? And yet. What was there to do? There was nothing to be done. We had already committed ourselves to one another; the only thing to do was to continue in this way.
Until one day we were at a wedding at the Marina del Ray, for some younger friends of ours who were now to be married, and as I was exiting the ladies’ room and walking through the corridor back to the main ballroom, I happened to stumble, the heel of my shoe catching on my dress. I fell, but someone caught me, and as I stood up my eyes met his- Michael. It was Michael, and I had not seen him in years, but it felt so natural to be in his arms, so right, that with a sigh of relief my eyes met his, and all the feelings that I thought I had buried so long ago flared up again. I pressed closer against him and felt his eyes meet mine, and then, realizing that we were in public, I stepped away from him.
“Are you all right?” he asked, and his tone was smooth and careful, as though he were merely asking about the fall.
“Yes, quite,” I answered, and flashed a smile at him. We exited the hallway, but in the opposite direction, and stood outside on the pier, where we looked out over the water.
“Aurora,” he said, and it seemed to me that he breathed the name, as though it were laden with memories for him, as it was for me. “I have missed you.”
“Yes, I too,” I answered, and suddenly tears sprang to my eyes and I turned, my face half-shadowed because of the sunlight. But I could feel his eyes on me and so I turned, unselfconsciously, and he saw the tears, though he did not comment. But simply in the way he looked at me I could feel that he would do anything so that I would not cry, and that there was within him a great longing to help, and to take me from myself.
“What is the matter, Aurora?” he asked quietly, so that the other people mingling outside would not hear, and I shook my head slightly to indicate this was not a matter to discuss in public. “It is just that I am glad to see you again,” I answered, and my smile came naturally, but did not dispel the tears caught within my eyes.
“Where have you been?” I asked him, and he told me he had been away, traveling in Europe for a time in business, but had come back to the States now. Indeed, he did not live so far away from me.
“Are you—married?” I inquired, for as he must have been in his thirties, it seemed likely.
“No,” he said simply, and I read an answer in his eyes, an answer which simultaneously thrilled and frightened me, because it suggested that what I now felt was reciprocated. I understood now why my feelings of infatuation had not lasted for Josh; it was because there was something much deeper and stronger, a bond that had been there first and that could not be taken away from me- and that was with Michael, who had always been the one to save me and to help me. Michael and I had always been equals, in our devotion to God and our dedication to our Judaism. In many things we were like-minded; there were a few on which we differed significantly, and these differences were such that I determined, of course, that I could not marry him. I had not admitted to myself that I loved him still, that at the moment, all I wanted to do was trace the pads of my fingers up his chin, around his jaw, down his neck, to run my perfectly manicured fingernails over his lips, to taste his tongue. But I saw the answering look of desire in his eyes, and also the realization that it was inappropriate, and more than that, forbidden. We were Jews and we knew the law well; adultery was the most contemptible thing for it made a mockery of the sacred institution of marriage in which I was bound. For three things, one must die- and one of them is committing adultery with a married woman.
I knew these things as well, and I never thought that I would come to committing adultery with Michael. That was not in my mind, not at all; rather, I was certain that I had at last found someone who could be there for me when I needed it, who could be the pillar of support that Josh was not. And indeed, that is what happened- that is how we began. I would write him letters, or emails; we would speak, sometimes on the phone- invariably when Josh was not around- and then, discreetly, we began to meet- in public, and sometimes for a dinner amongst others.
Yet I refrained from introducing him to my husband. I felt that my husband would sense what I myself knew- that it was this man I loved, and not him. I had not been unfaithful to Josh physically, but I had in my heart, and I knew it, though as of yet, I would not admit that, either.
Until that night- there was a night when Michael called me and such wild pain rode in his voice that I fled, invented an excuse that I had to leave, and came to his apartment to find out what it was that had wracked him so. A friend, a beloved friend of his had committed suicide, a friend who had been David to his Jonathan, and he did not know what to do. And then- it was natural; it was right- how could I have refrained- I threw my arms around him and comforted him, stroking his hair, my fingers twining through his curls, his back, his arms, soothing him and calming him, to quiet the storm that raged within.
I did not sleep with him that night; I merely eased his grief. But we continued on like that and we could not help ourselves, or perhaps, if we could have, it was that we did not want to. I know that I did not want to. What I did felt right, sanctified and pure- I shared my body with the man whom I felt was my true soulmate, not to spite Josh or to hurt him, but because this afforded me a joy and happiness that I had utterly forgotten. I continued my duties as wife and mother at home, and continued in my kindness toward Josh, but I felt myself to be a hypocrite, and even despicable.
How could it be that I was an adulteress? I, who clung to the tenets of Judaism, who lived my whole life by them, and through them; how had I succumbed to this? It was impossible, and yet, there was no way for me to repent, because to repent was to say this was false, but it was not false. I knew that what God desired of me was something stronger still- for me to admit that this was not false, but rather pure, in that it was done for a pure reason, but nevertheless to refrain from it, because I was deceiving my husband and I was hurting my soul, which God had given me. But it was not so simple. I did not wish to leave Josh- you are wondering why it was I did not simply ask for a divorce- because I did not know if I could be wed to Michael. All the same questions that had once existed between us were yet there; I did not know if we could exist in each others’ company in the way that we wished to, or if we would not cause our own downfall there as well. Aside from this, I loved my children- by this time I had two, a boy and a girl- and wanted them to grow up well, in a family not divided.
In my heart I felt my dishonesty hurt and corrupt me, but at the same time, I felt somewhat justified, as Josh had learned to become more and more unkind. He was cruel in his neglect. He took no notice of me unless it was for something he needed- whether his food or his bed- and he thought this was perfectly all right. He would not offer the children the necessary attention unless I begged it of him; he would cuttingly state that he was tired and overworked and the only true provider in this family, anyway, and that he did not have time to deal with them just now. The tears I cried because of this! And I felt selfish, too, to take my joy with another when I had not succeeded in saving my children from the bondage of their respective schools, and they were being raised in a model of Judaism that I myself did not embody. They clung to me, my children, and my way of living and existing; they felt the coldness of what they were taught, the chill haunted them.
I was an adulteress, but I was too frightened to tell my husband- at first, I had not meant to deceive him, and now, I had deceived him for so long; what was I to do? And I was worried about what would happen-because I was sure it would be a divorce, and who would be given custody of the children? I needed the children, wanted them desperately, but I was not sure what he might do to punish me. And so I was silent, and thought somehow my two worlds would not collide.
They did collide. A rumor, then confirmed by Josh realizing that I was not in the place I had told him I would be, and finally showing up at Michael’s apartment one day- who gave him the address, I do not know- and finding me there- fully dressed, as it happened, as I was about to leave, after having had much talk and entertainment with him, with Michael, that is. The blood drained from my face, and Josh, who was cold, simply escorted me outside, into the car, and into the bedroom when we came home.
There, I expected rage. But it was not rage with which he confronted me, but cold fury, cold blind fury when he summed up my deceits and failings as a wife, a human being and a mother. I felt the guilt with which he suffocated me; I felt it tighten like a noose around my neck. I knew that I would be shamed if he chose to tell others of my unfaithfulness, and yet, had it truly been a choice? I had only longed to be faithful to myself, not to hurt him, yet even I could hear how false those words sounded. I was frightened, frightened of being alone and without him, for Josh had become my security, and I was used to him. What then was I to do? Was I to leave my marriage, or leave Michael- and could I even promise to do that- would it be possible? There are some things we cannot do.
At first, defiantly, I told Josh that it was his fault that our marriage had deteriorated to this state- his anger, his fights, his cruelty in neglecting me, in not seeing what it was that I needed, longed for and craved. At this he looked at me with a look that was terrifying to behold, and raised his hand as though to strike me. But he did not strike me; he simply put it down at his side after looking at his fingers, opening and closing his fist as though in wonder, in confusion- could this be he, could this be him- driven to anger and distraction through a woman, a mere woman, his wife, Aurora?
He told his parents; he told my parents. My parents were shocked; they had raised me well and purely. Who could expect this behavior from me? What kind of person was I? And angrily, I stated that I was a person who had been forced into marriage too young, a person who had been shaken from the folds of my society, who had been raised to enter into marriage without being sure, without knowing, without feeling that certainty- I was someone who had been prodded into this because it was what I ought to do, what I had been taught I must do- to marry. I spilled my self-hatred and vitriol out on them, and then I wept, because I did not know what to do, or how to go about it.
I wanted to leave Josh but I wanted my children, and he made it a choice between him and them. He was magnanimously willing to forgive me- that is, to retain his comfortable status of having his woman do everything for him, from listening and looking beautiful to cooking, cleaning and mothering the children- so long as I never saw Michael again. On the other hand, if I chose to divorce- he knew that I would marry Michael soon after, and break the law which states that an adulteress is not permitted to the man she slept with- I would not see my children again. How he managed that, what lies he told, I did not know; I only knew that I could not defend myself and it was this choice that was presented me.
What was I to do? My entire soul was bound up with Michael; he understood and knew me thoroughly, including all my sins, and yet he loved me anyway. And his love was a long, lasting and abiding fact; it was a love that was unconditional, even when he and I both knew that we were wrong- and we did, here, we knew that we were wrong to commit adultery and yet we did it anyway, because we hadn’t the strength to stop ourselves from showing, through love expressed physically- what our souls already knew.
But my children, my children! To not see my children again, to relinquish them into the care of some other woman, to be brought up in a religion that would choke them and bind them, as it had initially bound me- until I had fought free of it in my quest to be my own mistress, and had understood precisely who I was- what choice was this? At first, painfully, I thought I could survive without them- I gave my husband the go-ahead for the divorce. But then, weeping, crawling, I came back to him and begged him, begged him to take me back because I loved them and wanted to stay with them.
He took pity on me and exercised compassion. He did not refuse to have me; he took me back into the house and things resumed their normal course. But my whole soul was consumed with longing for Michael, with the desire to know how Michael was doing, what thoughts interested him, what fascinated him, what compelled him to act. He was a rabbinical student- which may seem hypocritical to some, but you don’t understand that what we did was done purely, not out of lust for the body, but to rectify a mistake, a mistake I made long ago when I foolishly married a man whom I thought was right for me but who was not- a mistake of my youth that I cannot, now rectify.
I heard recently that Michael is engaged. I cannot lie and tell you that news did not come to me as a blow. I had hoped, somehow, selfishly and unfairly, that he could be mine forever, only mine, even if only in my heart. But now he is hers, whomever she may be, and what I must live on is a memory- a sinful memory, yes, I know- and one that I should banish and abolish, and one which I ought to forget. I ought to pray to God and beg his mercy; I ought to do teshuva; I ought to think how blessed I am to have a husband who forgave me this trespass. And yet, I do not lie if I told you that those moments of my life are the ones that help me live, those forbidden moments are the ones that give me strength, that my sin to me does not seem a sin, and what is far uglier is the life I now live, this life that is a lie, which torments and encroaches upon me and presses me, smaller and smaller, so that I am encaged, living within my gilded box. I feel something within me that becomes angrier and angrier and I fear what I may do- and to whom- and all I know is that I am not Aurora, the dreamer, the idealist, the one who represents the dawn, but someone far more savage and angry, primal even, and I am tormented by dreams. In my dreams I do not marry young; I do not marry to please my parents; I do not marry until I am sure. In my dreams, I dance with Michael- and yet I still pray before God. I am still a Jew. Does it shock you that I am yet a Jew? I am a Jew with every fiber of my being; it is only that I am an adulteress, as well…and I do not regret, not truly, for I still sin in my heart.
Credits: The Duchess