For Mommy- the strongest person I know.
ה וְשָׂרַף אֶת-הַפָּרָה, לְעֵינָיו: אֶת-עֹרָהּ וְאֶת-בְּשָׂרָהּ וְאֶת-דָּמָהּ, עַל-פִּרְשָׁהּ יִשְׂרֹף. 5 And the heifer shall be burnt in his sight; her skin, and her flesh, and her blood, with her dung, shall be burnt.
~Numbers 19: 5
“I wish I had that power of yours, that ability to simply smile and light up the room,” Josh told her, absently plucking at several strands of grass. Sun danced across his face as he studied the lawn upon which he lay, his dark hair thrown forward for the moment.
Natalia smiled at him. She had propped herself up on her elbows but was also nestled against the wet grass, admiring the range of people here on this perfect Sunday afternoon. “You know, I didn’t think I’d have occasion to do this, but I’m pretty sure you just ensured that I marry Darwin to Torah,” she admonished him, plucking a dandelion and waving it forcefully under his nose. He sneezed. She laughed.
“Is that so?” he inquired, daring her to proceed.
“Indeed,” she laughed, then turned slightly more serious. “You see, Newton’s the one who says that for every action there’s an equal and opposite reaction. You find that in the Torah as well when it discusses the red heifer.”
Josh was a semikha student. “Numbers 19,” he quoted lazily.
“Show-off,” she rejoined, then continued. “In any case, just like Newton says, the powers of purity and impurity work that way. The priest who sprinkles the blood of the red heifer becomes impure until the evening. A different man who is clean must collect the ashes of the heifer, which can make others clean. But he himself will be unclean until the evening.”
“So what exactly are you saying, my Russian beauty,” he teased. “Are you under the impression that you are ritually impure?”
“No,” she laughed, and he admired the freckles that spun across her nose as she looked up at him. “I’m saying the people who make others happy are the same ones who are incredibly sad themselves.”
“I didn’t realize I was the cause for such sorrow,” he responded and she turned over, nestling closer to him without quite touching him.
“You’re not,” she told him and he admired her hazel eyes, the auburn hair, the determined jut of her nose and chin.
“You’re a dreamer,” he stated. “You know that?”
“Course I do,” she accepted gracefully. “And you’re a rabbi.”
“Well, not yet,” he said, a lazy smile touching his face. “And you know it’s bad luck to say I am before I pass the tests.”
“Like there’s even a question that you’ll fail,” she rolled her eyes.
“Course there is,” he replied. “I’m Josh Feinstein, not anyone special.”
“Right,” she slurred sarcastically, elongating the word to demonstrate exactly how much she disagreed with that statement. “Nobody special at all.”
“Not at all,” he agreed, smiling in response.
Her eyes wandered over him, the jet black hair sloppily falling over his face, the angular face and green eyes. He was tall and wiry and she was still unused to seeing him without his glasses. It was strange since he’d gotten contacts; almost as though he had become a separate person.
“Josh Feinstein,” she said, “you may just be the world’s biggest liar.”
He raised his eyebrow, unwilling to debate the point. Frustrated, she let out an oomph as she sunk to the ground, pressing her cheek against the blades of grass. A twig dug into her skin, ruining the romantic effect she had envisioned.
“Ow,” she said.
“You okay?” he questioned.
“Yeah,” she stated, standing up and brushing off her skirt. It was made of thin tulle and lace, layered over one another to produce a delicate effect. It had not been meant for lying in the grass, and it surely wasn’t meant to be paired with bright blue Sketchers and earrings made from bottle caps.
But Natalia didn’t care. She never cared about things like that. And what was more, she had a kind of delicacy and beauty lent her by the careful placement of her features and the dark red hair, especially as contrasted with her extremely fair skin, that gave her a pleasing look despite the seeming clash in apparel.
“You want to go get pizza?” Josh questioned and Natalia gratefully nodded.
“J2 it is, then,” he stated, and the two of them walked side by side over the lawn and down the park stairs.
“So when’s the big day?” Rena teased, beaming at Natalia as soon as she walked through the door of their shared apartment.
“What big day?” questioned Natalia, but her cheeks pinked pleasantly. She slipped off her flip-flops and left them by the door, walking over to the bathroom to wash her hands.
“Oh, come on,” Rena insisted. “You’ve been going out for five and a half months!”
“Yeah?” questioned Natalia noncommittally. She breathed in the scented Moonlight Path Bath & Body Works soap, enjoying its fragrance and aroma. The very name of this scent was suggestive, enwrapping her in fantasies of purple and black and paths with the scent of lilies trodden into the very ground. She closed her eyes.
“So isn’t he going to propose to you soon?”
Natalia was irritated by the constant questions. “Firstly,” she stated, trying carefully to keep her temper under control, “for all you know, we could be meaning to date for two years. Secondly, if I wanted you to know about any of the details of this, I would tell you. Thirdly, I don’t see how this is any of your business. And now, if you’ll excuse me, I want to get dinner.”
“Touch-y,” Rena stated, imitating Le Fou in Beauty & the Beast. She thought about adding the French snort at the end of the word but decided she would probably embarrass herself in the attempt and therefore refrained.
“Who does she think she is?” Natalia muttered to herself as she cracked open two eggs and expertly slipped them into the skillet, a pat of butter already warming in it. She watched as her omelet sizzled, the yellow and white edges hardening as she pushed them about with a brown spatula. Just then she heard Linkin Park’s “Numb” blasting from her room, and placing the spatula in the pan for a moment, she ran to pick it up.
“Just a sec,” she said while flipping open the Motorala Razor. “Let me put my Bluetooth on.”
“You cooking dinner?” Josh questioned.
“Yeah,” Natalia replied.
“Room for another at the table tonight?”
“Normally I’d say yes,” Natalia stated, pushing her eggs across the pan and into a white plate with a brightly colored flower trim. “But tonight I think your presence here would raise…questions.” She shot a look at Rena, who seemed zoned out, sitting and staring at the computer screen.
“Aw, that’s too bad.”
“Yeah,” Natalia agreed, “but I had a great time today. Thanks so much.”
“You know how much I like to spend time with you, Nat,” Josh stated and she warmed to the sincerity in his voice.
“Yeah, me too,” she said quietly.
“So I don’t want to take time away from your dinner. Call me back afterwards? I have something special in mind for you.”
Natalia couldn’t help it; all of her nerves went into overdrive at hearing that. What with Rena’s suggestion and the tone he was taking…she wasn’t sure what to expect. “Okay,” she gulped, trying to calm herself down. “Sure.” She prepared a proper placemat at the table, placed her plate, napkin and a mug before her in a beautiful semblance of order, and sat down to eat. She forced herself to eat slowly, chew carefully, and washed everything down with a cup of coffee. Then she flipped open her phone and called him back.
“Yeah?” she questioned when he picked up.
“When are you free tomorrow?” he questioned.
“Not till 8,” she said regretfully.
“That’s fantastic,” he told her. “I want you to meet me at 1535 Broadway tomorrow night, #503.”
“Where’s that?” she asked. “Have I been there before?”
“Not telling,” he answered. She could hear the smile in his voice. “Don’t google it. I promise you, you can’t miss it.”
“What time should I come?”
“Soon as you can get there?” he suggested. “Say 8:30 PM? 8:45?”
“Fantastic,” she smiled. This was a game they continually played, picking new places to meet and activities to do. Not knowing where they were going was part of the adventure. “Just tell me- fancy or casual?”
“Whatever you’re more comfortable in,” he told her. “You know I love you in whatever. But in terms of fitting into the place- knowing you, I think you’d prefer fancy.”
“Thanks so much, Josh,” she stated, elation flooding her voice. “I’m so excited!”
“Yeah, I know you are,” he said. “Tomorrow night, then.”
She fell asleep that night with euphoria riding in her veins, the blood pulsing with joy. All her dreams were of him, all her thoughts and memories could contain nothing else. He was the best thing that had ever happened to her.
She stared up at the Marriott, confused as to whether this was indeed the place he wished her to be.
Not that she didn’t fit in. Indeed, she had specifically heeded his warning and was wearing high black stiletto shoes, a sheath dress that outlined her body to great effect, and she had even chosen to mirror Kiera Knightley’s hairstyle in “Pride and Prejudice.” Having gathered it up in a mass of curls, she had used pearl-studded pins to secure it in an exquisite updo. She sported pearl earrings and berry-red lipgloss. Her cheeks were tinted pink; her eyes outlined in soft grey pencil.
But what was room 503?
Was it possible that in addition to the eighth-floor lounge and The View there was another part of the Marriot with which she was unacquainted? She wouldn’t find that surprising. Most probably Josh had discovered some fascinating part of the fifth floor and thought it would amuse her to meet him there.
She slipped inside and, after walking over the keypad, typed in the 5th floor as her destination. Elevator K lit up. She stepped inside, accompanied by a tourist, a man with a black hat and long black sidelocks and a girl who seemed to be wearing a plastic dress in the style of Lady Gaga. She wrinkled her brow at that last, unsure of how exactly the woman had secured the fabric to her body; there was no zipper that she could see.
At 5, she stepped out and walked down the hallway. To her increasing discomfort, she saw actual rooms rather than another part of the lobby or a bar. She fidgeted upon reaching room 503 but finally knocked upon the door. Perhaps there was some kind of party or other surprise inside?
She heard a muffled, “Come in.” She opened the door, leaving it ajar so as not to transgress the laws of yichud. The room was dark. She felt for the lightswitch on the side panel but he caught her in his arms. His mouth teased hers, marking the edges of her lips, his tongue slipping between them. She kissed him back. He slipped his arms around hers, carried her to the bed. His hands slid beneath her dress and up her legs, teasing the silky smooth skin.
They had broken the laws of shomer negiah before, consumed in a haze of partial desire, partial shame and partial inability to regret. But they had never gone this far and alarm bells prickled beneath her skin. He was urgent, wild, although he wasn’t hurting her; in fact, if it could be said, he was drugging her, making her come alive beneath his touch. She could tell that he had dressed carefully; he was wearing a suit.
“Josh,” she said, but he had one hand underneath her back while he kissed her right beneath her ear. “Josh!” she stated, louder, a little more frantically. He stopped.
“I’m sorry,” he whispered, his voice husky against her ears. “I had planned it better. I have champagne and roses and everything. But then I couldn’t resist just surprising you.” He reached for the light over the bed but she caught his hand.
“No, don’t,” she said. “Planned what better?” Was this how he meant to propose to her?
He gently pried her fingers from his hand. He turned on one of the lights over the bed. She looked around the room, saw the champagne cooling in a tub of ice, the roses laid across the table. “Don’t you want to make love to me?” he asked her.
“Josh!” she recoiled, totally appalled. “Of course I do, but…”
“But what?” he asked and leaned closer to her. Strongly as she might wish to resist, she was bound to him and couldn’t help melting into his arms and so, when he kissed her, she kissed him back. Her whole heart and soul were bound up in him. He kissed her eyelids, then her cheek. His voice was low.
“I booked the room for us,” he said. “We have all night.”
She felt as though she were in a dream. She loved him and he was standing there before her, tall and handsome with those intense green eyes and that suit and she could see how much he desired her and didn’t she want him as well? But how could he treat her this way? She was no man’s one-night-stand.
“Josh, what about marriage?”
“Marriage is a piece of paper,” he told her and the words tore through her, made her double over in pain. “Will having a rabbi spout a couple of words at us and signing a piece of paper make this feeling more right, more holy?” he asked her, taking her hand in his.
She looked at her fingers entwined with his, shuddered in fear. She was afraid because she didn’t know if she had the strength, because all she wanted to do was lie down in this bed and fall into forever with him. Because she had misjudged him and couldn’t believe she was capable of loving him even now, when he had so insulted her. What kind of person did he think he was, that she would fall into bed with him and forget all her principles, everything that she thought was right? But her whole body thrummed with the rightness of it and she wanted to give herself to him and love him in every way possible. She stood, frozen, trying to find the words.
“Make love to me,” he told her, his eyes meeting hers without the faintest trace of shame. “Let me make love to you. Let me take away your sadness, ease you of your pain. Let me…” he continued and he unzipped her dress (her cardigan had fallen to the floor) and hooked his hand underneath the strap, his hand pressed against the nakedness of her bare skin. She closed her eyes to savor the sensation, his fingers against her shoulder blade, and she thought about doing what he asked… why not, after all…
But tears came to her eyes and she struggled within herself, spun around on her heel. She forced herself to her strong, chose anger as her weapon, the only defense she had left. “How can you possibly think I would find this acceptable?”
“What objection can you have?” he stated easily. “If you’re going to cite halakha to me, you’d be wrong. All you have to do is go to the mikveh and commit to me; then you will be a pilegesh. My pilegesh,” he stated proudly and somehow the words held a tone of possessiveness and care that belied the ugliness in them.
“Josh, you’re in semikha!” she cried, the tears streaming down her cheeks.
“Your point?” he questioned, and he spun her to face him, cradled her in his arms. He captured her hands and held them, kissed the tears on her cheeks. “I love you and I’m not financially able to support you. Why shouldn’t we consummate our love for each other? Be my pilegesh; we won’t be violating any laws.”
“What about kids?” she fought, trying to come up with some reason that his logic was totally and utterly flawed, completely unacceptable.
“So you’ll go on the pill,” he said, as though this were a simple decision.
“Josh,” she breathed, tears inflecting her voice so that it came out loose, shaky, unprotected, “have you- done this- before?”
He shrugged easily. “Why does it matter, Nat?” he asked, and he gave the appearance of being so reasonable, so understanding. “You’re the only one who matters to me now.”
But if I mattered to you at all, she thought to herself, then wouldn’t you want to marry me? Why just use me? Why just use me for sex and then discard me? But it’s not so simple. When I look in his eyes I see that he loves me; he really does. He must have come up with this in order to justify having premarital sex. But I can’t believe- he’s going to become a rabbi. A rabbi! How can he think this- how can he?
“Josh,” she said, acutely aware of her state of undress, her flushed cheeks and the wild wisps of hair that had escaped from her updo, “I cannot do this.”
“Okay, darling,” he shrugged easily. “I guess it would have been better if I had talked to you before springing it on you; I just wanted to surprise you. And I thought you loved me as much as I love you.”
That was unfair, she thought, and the words hurt. They were cruel, barbed, not like the Josh she knew. “Do you really think that just because I won’t sleep with you I don’t love you?” she questioned.
“I don’t know, Nat,” he said, and ran his fingers through his hair, then looked back at her. “How do you think I should feel?”
Her anger reached its boiling point. “I think you should feel ashamed!” she yelled, completely and totally losing her temper. “I think you should be horrified by the fact that you think this is normal, that you think it’s perfectly acceptable to treat a woman this way. I think it’s awful that there are people who think that marriage is a piece of paper and nothing more than that. And I wonder what happened to your soul and how you can possibly claim to be part of a religion whose tenets you clearly don’t believe in.”
She placed her arms on her hips, breathing heavily. She was unaware that she looked beautiful when angry and flushed and a little aroused and that he had centered in on this beauty to the exclusion of all else.
“Everyone struggles with something when it comes to their religion,” Josh informed her, continuing to speak in a reasonable tone. “Just because I believe we should be lovers doesn’t mean I don’t believe in God. In fact, I think God would sanction what we are doing. There is nothing wrong with your being a pilegesh so long as you go to the mikveh. And besides, why would God make me feel so strongly for you if he didn’t want me to consummate it?”
“Maybe he does want you to consummate it, Josh, but when we’re married!” she flung at him, completely unable to assimilate his arguments. “And what kind of argument is that, anyway? Gay people might love each other but God doesn’t let them consummate their relationship. You might have a real hankering for shrimp but you’re not allowed to eat that, either. So since when does the fact that you want something mean that God approves of it?”
“Nat, darling,” he continued, entirely clear, calm and sober, “I believe in God. But I also believe that there is clear halakhic basis for what I want to do. Plus, you yourself were the one who taught me the philosophy of Ishbitz, where he says that what Zimri and Kosbi did wasn’t truly a sin because Zimri had fought against it and therefore it was an averiah l’shma. So you see, if we love each other here tonight, it won’t truly be a sin. To the contrary, it may help heal the fractured world!”
Natalia’s lips twisted up in disgust. “I cannot believe,” she stated, not very firmly because of the fact that she was shivering in total dismay, “I cannot believe that you could so twist and pervert the law and God’s desire and the philosophy of the Ishbitzer, all of it in order to make what is tamei tahor and what is tahor, tamei.”
“You’re the one who introduced me to the concept, darling,” he stated mockingly, referring to their former conversation regarding the Para Adumah.
“Oh my God!” she exclaimed, because it seemed to her as though he had suddenly revealed himself to be a monster. A monster who spoke and behaved in a sane way, who was wearing beautiful clothes, who declared his love for her and who felt no shame for his behavior. She had assumed that when he wore down her defenses and they had shared those passionate kisses, he too had felt the same confused fear and regret and indecision that she had, but they had bypassed it regardless. She had not realized this was deliberate, that he had done this all a thousand times before, that he…the thought made her sick.
“I never want to see you again,” she said, and picking her cardigan off the floor she walked away from those reasonable, calm, hurt eyes, those eyes that seemed to speak to her and tell her that she was needlessly hurting both of them, and would God really want her to do this?
When she stepped outside, a teenage boy was en route to the elevator. He noticed her disheveled state of dress and appearance and ran his eyes up and down her body appreciatively. “He’s a lucky guy,” he said, at which point the cheapness of the comment he had made suffused her body and her skin prickled. She felt like she was going to vomit. She made no comment to him in return.
Weaving her way somewhat drunkenly toward the elevator, feeling asleep on her feet, she walked down the corridor. She remembered there was a bathroom on the eighth floor and changed direction, going upstairs so as to reassemble her clothes and arrange her hair. She felt as though she were barely moving, even after splashing water on her face and tidying herself up. She stumbled outside, walking quickly, feeling somehow violated even though she had done nothing.
“I can’t believe that I loved him,” she stated violently, willing the words to be true. They weren’t of course. It wasn’t that she loved him. It’s that she did love him, that she wanted him, and that inside of her something was demanding that she return to him and to that room, pick up all the shattered pieces and beg him to take her clothes off of her and make her sigh with pleasure. She was afraid of herself and of that piece of her, afraid of the words that might emerge from her lips, the things that she might desire him to do. She ran, lurching toward the escalator and running down the steps, almost as though there were indeed someone racing after her.
Her heart was beating an erratic, impossible drumroll, leading up to some kind of crescendo she didn’t want to reach. Taking the 1 train back to the Heights was out of the question. Oh God, the Heights! And he was in semikha. Would she be able to truly escape him? The questions vied with one another as she slipped into the backseat of a yellow cab and requested that it take her home.
She slipped into her apartment stealthily, glad to find that her roommate was out. She didn’t want to shower, wanted to keep the impression of his kisses on her body even though she was disgusted with herself for caring about him at all. She tore off her dress and put on her pajamas, and then, astounded, wondered what in the world to do or who to tell. What could she say? And should she say anything? She didn’t have the words; she couldn’t think. Finally, exhausted, she fell asleep.
She awoke to apologies via email and the phone, promises that he would make it up to her. She didn’t contact him, knew she couldn’t talk to him. She had to make a clean break of it, give him up. Even if he asked her to marry him after this, she knew she couldn’t. The very fact that he had done this to her, placed the blame on her in this way…because the blame did encompass her and she felt very down, very sick, almost as though she was going to keel over.
“I need to feel beautiful,” she thought. “I need to do something that proves I am beautiful whether or not he wants me.” But she couldn’t think of anything. Every place she had been, she had been with him, in his company. His friends all respected him- he was good, kind, he had a mind that all of them envied. Should she tell them? Should she let them know what kind of person he was? She was afraid to. Who knew what kind of secrets they would reveal about themselves if she did so? Who knew how many of them were believers in tefillin dates? She felt the bile rise to her throat.
She was disgusted with herself most of all. She knew that if she were a true Jew she shouldn’t be longing for him, dying to pick up the phone and say she was sorry and it would all be okay from there. She should be feeling righteous, knowing that she did what she knew God desired of her. But she didn’t feel righteous at all. She just felt lousy and sick and as though she had lost something very, very precious.
She walked slowly toward the bathroom, feeling as though she were an old lady suffering from many aches and pains. She washed out her mouth and spat in the sink, Crest toothpaste creating a foaming mixture in the white bowl. She ran a comb through her hair, wrestling with the knotty curls. Her phone blared again and she threw it on the floor, watching as the battery came apart from the rest.
“Damn you,” she said, and wept, her head nestled between her knees, seated atop the white toilet seat. “Damn you, damn you, and damn me for loving you.” She neglected to lock the door to the bathroom, just sobbed and sobbed as though her heart were breaking.
The only thing that helped was listening to Cathy Dennis’ demo for Rihanna entitled “Suicide:”
Everywhere is still.
Everything is restless in my heart.
I hate the way this feels.
Suddenly, I’m scared to be apart.
The days are dark when you’re not around.
The air is getting hard to breathe.
I wish that you would just put me down.
I wish that I could go to sleep.
Loving you is suicide.
I don’t know: should I go or should I stay?
I’m trying to keep myself alive,
Knowing there’s a chance that it’s too late.
But I heard you say you loved me.
That’s the part I can’t forget.
And I wish that you’d come save me
‘cause I’m standing over the edge.
I should let you go.
Tell myself the things I need to hear
But my brain is wired wrong;
That’s why I’m loving you when you’re not here.
Feels like I drown in your every word
And every breath that’s in-between.
Somehow you got me where it really hurts;
It’s killing every part of me.
Loving you is suicide.
I don’t know: should I go or should I stay?
I’m trying to keep myself alive,
Knowing there’s a chance it’s all too late.
But I heard you say you loved me.
That’s the part I can’t forget.
And I wish that you’d come save me, boy,
‘cause I’m standing over the edge.
Loving you is suicide
And my world’s about to break
And I’ve had as much as I can take
And love is a long way down.
Loving you is suicide
And it’s getting harder every day.
I’m trying to keep myself alive,
Knowing there’s a chance it’s all too late.
And I’m way past every moment
But I’m still determined to fight.
And I know it’s taking all my strength
To keep emotion alive.
Loving you is suicide.
Of course, Chris Brown had beaten up his girlfriend, not asked her to make love to him. In fact, comparing the two situations was laughable. Or was it? Shouldn’t one always feel horror and confusion upon discovering that someone you thought you knew and loved wasn’t the person you thought they were? Natalia was more horrified by the fact that Josh affiliated himself as a member of the Orthodox Jewish community while breaking a law she felt was paramount to Judaism than the fact that he wanted to make love to her. When it came to that, she wanted to make love to him, too! That wasn’t what upset her. What upset her was that he truly believed that marriage was a piece of paper. What upset her was that it seemed to her as though he were living a lie.
She had always had more respect for people who openly admitted they were breaking the law than those who rationalized it away. But more than that, if Josh truly believed that marriage was merely a piece of paper, how could he possibly be a rabbi? Once a rabbi, he would be able to be mesader kiddushin, marry people! What kind of holiness could he possibly imbue in that ceremony when he felt it was worthless? Not that the actual holiness had anything to do with the rabbi himself but rather with the binding laws. But still! Still!
And should she tell the head of the semikah department? It’s not as though she had any proof. It would simply be her word against his. But she also didn’t want to ruin his name or his career. And she loved him, which was the hardest part of everything. So he committed one sin, possibly. He slept with girls. Should she ruin his whole career for that, get him kicked out of the program? She couldn’t have that on her conscience.
“I can’t deal with this,” she thought to herself. “I can’t, I can’t.” And what was more, to live here, where she would see him all the time- not on purpose, of course, but just because they lived in the same neighborhood with her- it was intolerable. It was impossible! But what should she do? Should she be the one to run away? No. She would be strong. She had done nothing wrong. He had been the one who wronged her.
Then why did she feel as though she were the one who was backwards, behind the time, keeping an archaic, ridiculous tradition that was rooted in nothing but old men’s prejudices?
She stiffened upon hearing the familiar voice behind her. She sped up, walking even more quickly.
“Nat, please.” She couldn’t deny that voice, turned around, doing her best to hold her head up high. “Please, let’s be friends. I understand that you’re angry with me, but we can work through it.”
And there he stood, debonair and dashing and entirely unaware of the ways in which he had hurt her. “Do you have any idea what it feels like to have someone say he loves you when in fact all he wants is to have sex with you?” she demanded fiercely.
“Nat, you know that’s not all I want to do with you!” He ran his fingers through his hair as though he were at his wit’s end. “You know I love you. I just wanted to show it to you…”
“Yeah, you really did show it to me,” she spat. She nervously smoothed her pink skirt across her legs; she watched his eyes follow the gesture.
“Nat, we can make it like how it was before. Just get back together with me. I’ve missed you so much.” He raised his eyes to hers. “You’re brilliant and beautiful and I’m sorry that I offended you with my idea. I’m fine leaving that part out of the equation.”
“You’re fine!” she sputtered, hardly knowing where to begin. “Don’t you understand that it’s never going to be how it was before? That I don’t even feel like I know you, that I feel like you’re an entirely different person? I don’t know where to begin or end with you and you can’t imagine the shame that I feel for being as love with you as I- was.” She licked her lips nervously.
“Don’t pretend it’s over,” he said, “when you know it’s not.”
“It is over!” she argued heatedly.
“Then why do you still blush when I come close to you?” he questioned, stepping towards her. “Why do you lean into me?” he asked, wrapping his hand around her waist. “Why do your eyes widen like that? That’s liquid desire. You can be angry with me for what I did but you can’t deny that you want me and you care about me and you-“
“I’m not denying it,” Natalia stated, shaken, tears clogging her throat. “You’re right, damn you. I do love you but I’m not going to have things go back to the way they were before- they can’t, no matter how hard you try- and you should leave me alone. I don’t want to see you, I don’t want to hear from you and…if you care about me at all, you’ll leave me be.”
He reacted as though she had struck him across the face, staggering back. Then, a small smile plastered across his pale face, he rejoined, “You’ll come back to me.” He inclined his head and turned, heading up the block, whistling a tune nonchalantly.
“Nat!” Leila called to her. She swiveled around, perfectly poised, holding a mushroom bureka in one hand. “Have you seen David yet?”
Natalia stepped forward, balancing carefully on her high red heels. Her dress was also a bright red, so it appeared as though she were made of flame, the auburn strands in her hair illuminated by the brightness of the color. “He’s adorable,” she cooed and bent down to him. “How old is he?”
“Five months,” Leila replied smugly, adjusting her wig slightly with her spare hand, the other one firmly clasped over the handle of the stroller. “And you know what else?”
“What?” questioned Natalia innocently.
“It’s ingenious,” Leila stated. “You’ll never believe how clever we were.” She cast a glance of pride toward her husband, Kaleiv, standing on the other side of the room.
“What’d you do?” Natalia questioned, only half-listening. A blinding feeling gnawed at her insides; she was having difficulty behaving with ease after having been so painfully betrayed by Josh. Her goal was to pretend that nothing was wrong.
“Well, we got married halakhically but not according to the state. So according to the government I’m registered as a single mother. Which means they pay me to help support the baby! Isn’t that brilliant?” The woman beamed with pride.
“What did you just say?” Natalia inquired dangerously, her voice very smooth.
“Kaleiv and I got married, but not legally. So the government helps us out with the baby.” The woman was blissfully unaware of the fact that Natalia’s eyes were about to detonate.
“Explain to me, please,” Natalia replied pleasantly, “why precisely you think that is legal?”
“Oh, we don’t, of course. But my mother says that we’ve given the government plenty, what with taxes and all, and so it’s about time we got something back from them.”
“You do get something back from them,” Natalia pointed out, wondering whether the entire world was going to fall apart on them. “There are public libraries, schools-“
“Yes,” Leila’s laugh tinkled invitingly, “but surely you know that we don’t send our children to their schools.”
“That’s your choice, however. There’s absolutely no justification for what you are doing.”
“Who are you to judge?” Leila questioned angrily. “You don’t have a baby. You don’t have a husband learning in kollel. You don’t know how hard it is.”
“Your husband is perfectly healthy, Leila!” Natalia exclaimed, exasperated. “He could get a job if he wanted.” She looked at Kaleiv, laughing happily as he spoke with a fellow student at the party. He held a beer in one hand and seemed to be contemplating sitting down on the green couch.
“Yes, but he’s learning,” Leila stated, as though this alone explained her attitude.
“And you think that God would approve of this subterfuge? That God appreciates lies?” Natalia’s temper was simmering and she was trying very hard to maintain it before she entirely lost her cool.
“This is ensuring that the world survives. The entire world survives only in the merit of Jews learning God’s Torah. Surely you know that, Natalia,” Leila defended her choice while looking down at her beautiful baby, smiling at him. “Besides, we haven’t lied. We really aren’t married according to the government, and thus I really am a single mother.”
“There’s a Gemara that states,” Natalia retorted, “that if a man pretends to be blind, have a swollen belly, a shrunken leg or a hump, he will not depart this world before actually becoming that way. If a man accepts charity and is not in need of it, his end is that he will become blind or lame in truth and will actually need it. In this case, since you say you are a single mother, take care lest you actually become one.”
“You’re wishing death on my husband!” Leila exclaimed, utterly shocked.
“What the fuck is wrong with you?” Natalia exploded, having completely lost her temper. “Of course I’m not wishing death on your husband! I’m just shocked- and disgusted- that Orthodox Jews believe that it is perfectly acceptable to fleece the government so long as it suits them. And to twist the law to suit you! What about avak sheker? What about honesty? Not lying? What are all of you dealing with that is so terrible and so difficult that you can’t put in the time to work and make the money legally? Thank God, you’re not lame or blind or deaf or single, so why the hell would you pretend that you are?”
Everyone at the party turned to look at her, shocked. She had done something socially inappropriate, almost as bad as picking one’s nose in public, or scratching one’s derriere. The host waited to see whether, opposed by so many eyes, she would quiet down. Natalia stared them all down.
“Who are you to judge?” Leila argued back. “I work hard, two jobs, just to ensure that my husband can learn…”
“That’s your choice!” Natalia shouted. “What do you not understand about the fact that you have chosen to live this way? That if you make your bed you have to lie in it? That you can’t decide to twist decency and honesty in the service of God? That God doesn’t desire a stone heart and animal sacrifices but rather the true service of the heart?”
“Look at you, Nat,” someone laughed at her. “Who would have thought you would be so come-uppity and self-righteous?”
“If speaking the truth is being self-righteous,” she replied, her eyes daggers, “then may I be self-righteous until I die.”
“Bravo,” she heard a familiar voice behind her. She wanted to sink into the floor.
“Our darling Natalia, so brave and so beautiful,” he mocked her as he strode towards her. “Would you perhaps like to confess your own sins? Would you like to tell the good people assembled here the things you have said, the thoughts you have thought, the desires you have had, the way you would fly to the man you loved in an attempt to fulfill them?”
He wanted her to throw down the gauntlet, to expose him for what he was. He wanted her to do it because he was too cowardly to do it himself. And somewhere within himself he wanted to be exposed, wanted to be pure before God once more. It was a kindness she could not do him.
“All I can say,” she replied stiffly, “is that those who lie to themselves in service of God are not the ones who are truly serving him.” She spun on her heel and walked toward the door of the room.
“Where do you think you’re going?” Kaleiv blocked the exit. “You accuse me of being a thief and then mean to leave? I can quote you the greatest rabbanim…”
She snapped her fingers. “A fig for your greatest rabbanim!” she stated contemptuously. “This is what I think of them if they permit you to lie and to steal.”
“How do you know you wouldn’t give into the temptation to do it, if it were you?” Lianna questioned. She was wearing a beautiful blue suit, her hair held back by a silver scarf. Her question sounded sincere. “Let he who has no sin be the first to throw stones and all that,” she offered up.
“Firstly, I didn’t know we quoted Christian philosophy to defend Jewish practices,” Natalia replied. “Secondly, how do I know that I won’t give into the temptation to lie to myself and before God? Because I’ve already lost everything for Him. And the only reason I’ve done that is because I want to be able to walk before Him without shame, to hold up my head before Him. That’s the way I want to live my life. And sometimes I fail,” she looked at Josh, “and then I hate myself for it. But I couldn’t live my entire life knowing that I was lying- either about loving him or about serving him. I simply couldn’t do it.”
The eyes bored into her, accusing eyes. They were angry at her. She had spoken words they didn’t want to hear, had been impolite enough to bring up the things everyone knew but no one wanted to consider. They liked to think of themselves as perfectly righteous Jews. Josh was planning to become a rabbi. And Leila was the mother of an adorable little boy. And both of them had come up with reasons and rationalizations that made them pure in God’s eyes.
“I have no excuse,” she stated brokenly that night, lying in her bed and speaking to Him. “I know I shouldn’t have broken your laws. I know I shouldn’t be lying here dying to be with Josh. But I won’t pretend that what’s forbidden is permitted. Allow that to be my saving grace.” Her stomach hurt, her body protesting her hunger. She had eaten nothing at the party.
“Let me purify myself before you,” she whispered. “The verse states that her skin, and her flesh, and her blood, with her dung, shall be burnt, the red heifer that purifies all. She is consumed. So burn me alive, eat me up with desire; only ensure that in the end I come back to you.”
And she turned over in her bed, feeling naked and vulnerable and incredibly alone, her tears seeping through her pillowcase, so hot they burned.