“A little dry down here,” Anne said.
“Mmhmm.” Ruth braced as the speculum slid in, cold and sharp as the shards she and Joey used to sliver off the iceman’s delivery when they thought Ma wasn’t looking. Never mind that Anne had tried to warm the instrument between her palms before insertion, the cold steel still shocked the same as that first time when Ruth had spread her legs for old Doc Sonnenschein at her long-ago obligatory pre-wedding exam. She gripped the sides of the table now like that same young bride in her first encounter with the speculum.
“How’re the girls?” Anne murmured. Ruth’s girls, Susan and Debbie, women now, with their own histories with the speculum. What went on here now between Anne and Susan, who still lived nearby with a husband and children of her own? Ruth preferred not to think.
A jolt of finger followed steel into Ruth’s private depths, first one opening, then another. Ruth’s openings. Anne’s finger. Anne. Dr. Melnick. Call me Anne, she had said so many years ago, but that always made Ruth feel as if her own mother’s finger were up her crotch. In addition to Ma, Anna, there were the aunts—Hannah, Channah, and American Ann—all told, a bit incestuous.
This Anne, the one with her finger up Ruth’s crotch, had been hired by Ruth’s brother Joey, Joe the doctor, when he’d decided his patient load had grown too big for a solo practitioner. Then he’d promptly retired to the golf course, leaving Anne to manage solo. If Anne missed him, she never let on, installing flowered curtains in Joe’s waiting room, replacing Joe’s skimpy paper gowns with pink cotton. Ruth, of course, had never let her brother near her crotch but had been happy to present herself for her annual female physicals once he’d brought a woman on board. But did it have to be a woman named Anne?
“We could do something about this,” Anne said with her cheery grin, as if they were both a little dry now. Anne, with her splendid cobalt eyes and her schoolgirl freckles peeking out from just a few wrinkles. And shrinking Ruth, whom someone might once have called statuesque. Whom someone did once call statuesque. That someone, her husband Al, sitting in the waiting room right this minute, probably snoring midst the pink couches and parenting magazines. OK, snoring wasn’t fair, maybe studying his copy of the weekly Jewish Forward for updates on the recent handshake that President Clinton had maneuvered between Arab and Jew. As if ageless enemies could turn into friends. Al, the optimist.
Anne was an optimist, too, determined that Ruth continue to enjoy the sex life of a young woman, or at least of someone not yet dead. This had been a project of hers for years. There had been suppositories and creams, potions and pills, all of which had gone in and out of fashion quicker than the New Look had evolved into mini, midi, maxi. Once Anne had even recommended a store where high-quality lubricants were sold in plain brown wrappers, which had reminded Ruth of that first time Al had asked his schoolmate’s American-born father where to buy rubbers, a story he’d shared with her only later, much later, in bed, in the dark, where she couldn’t see if he was blushing, but she could feel the pink heat of him. That might have been the time they’d made Susan, their very first time without said rubber.
“Is the lubricant for me or for him?” Ruth had been forced to ask back then, as naïve at 70 as at 20, thinking perhaps she’d have to send a granddaughter to make the purchase on her behalf.
“Just slather it all over down there,” Anne had replied with her usual good cheer, “all over everyone.” Everyone, as if there might be a crowd. Anne knew Al from the occasional family affair, Joe’s daughters’ weddings, his wife Saralee’s annual Thanksgiving. She was familiar with the scant strands of hair Al combed across his scalp, was perhaps envisioning such a sparsity in his nether regions as well.
There had been months, even a year, OK two, when lubricants had been superfluous, when Ruth had exiled Al to sleep in one of the girls’ rooms, had banked a fire of anger at him and tended it like Ma with her bricks to warm Ruth’s toes alone in bed on winter nights, bricks that sometimes scorched. Even during that long dry spell—dry, ha!—Ruth had accepted Anne’s prescriptions, always filled them, lest the druggist somehow report back to Anne, like a schoolteacher calling home to report a naughty child. This time the prescription was for a new cream to be applied to Ruth’s own nether regions, daily for the first month, then three times a week after that. One more form of estrogen. To replace that which had been lost. At 76 now, this seemed a foolish endeavor, a pipe dream.
Ruth’s anger had long since cooled, even hardened like the fondant icing on the wedding cake she’d once dreamt of instead of Ma’s homemade rugelach that had actually graced her wedding table. Now sometimes, once a month to be honest, the first Saturday of the month to be brutally honest, Al opened a bottle of wine with dinner, and that meant he was hoping for something after dinner. Ruth had read in one of those trashy women’s magazines at her weekly beauty parlor wash-and-set that wine suppresses the male sex drive, but apparently Al hadn’t read the same article, because his sex drive was just fine after a drink—slower than back in their where-to-buy-a-rubber days, but still up to the task. It was Ruth whose parts no longer seemed to function as they ought. The natural atrophy of aging was what Anne called this biological dryness. Atrophy, as painful as if one of her limbs had fallen off.
And here’s the thing Ruth would never ask Anne. Was it Al’s fault, this atrophy? Maybe those months of angry disuse had caused this painful dryness that failed to respond to any of Anne’s treatments. If she and Al had kept up their regular sex life, surely her inner parts would have retained their smooth efficiency. Like her cherry-wood challah board that oiled up slick and shiny after Shabbat every week but turned cracked and parched if Ruth and Al managed two weeks in Florida to escape the snow.
This, Ruth would never discuss with Anne, not when Anne would be eyeing Al over Saralee’s Thanksgiving turkey in a few weeks. Too much information, as the grandchildren would say. But maybe Anne could tell, just by looking, whether or not her parts were in use, even if just once a month. Hence the new prescription, which she tore from her pad and handed to Ruth with a flourish. Did Anne think she could stop time? Or maybe go backwards, like one of those back and future movies the grandchildren used to drag them to, Ruth and Al, while Susan and her Howard stayed home doing God knew what? Hadn’t she once enjoyed sitting next to Al in the dark, never mind whatever movie might flicker across the screen?
Ruth clutched the paper in her hand through Anne’s winding-down washing and chatting. She wasn’t about to step down from the exam table to retrieve her purse until Anne had fully departed. Those same varicose veins and bunions that just moments ago had been practically wrapped around Anne’s ears were a much more alarming embarrassment when displayed on a mature woman walking upright in a cotton gown.
“Al’s here? In the waiting room?” Anne said, crumpling a paper towel, one pointy-toed pump stepping efficiently to open the trash. “I’ll just go say hello. What a nice guy he is to drive you.”
Nice guy. Nice guy. Couldn’t anyone figure something different to say about Al? Al, a man with too much time on his hands, and Ruth perfectly capable of driving herself. Thank God at least for Fridays and Saturdays when he worked at her old friend Millie’s father’s liquor store. Thank God for Millie’s father, and thank God for the weekend rush on beer and booze.
Alone at last, Ruth dressed as quickly as her limbs would allow, slapping in a sanitary pad to catch the vaginal drippings that Anne’s finger had conjured where Al’s other probing no longer could. Anne was possibly at that very moment planting a kiss on Al’s cheek, exchanging knowing grins about aging Ruth.
Sure enough, there they were when Ruth emerged still fumbling with the last button of her blouse. Anne and Al, talking, not kissing, gesticulating in fact, maybe arguing. And it was the Times not the Forward that Al brandished, each with a hand on it, like childhood tug-of-war.
“What kind of a man,” Al was saying, “with a kid like that?”
“A woman, not a kid,” Anne said. “Don’t I see them every day, time to take responsibility for their own bodies?”
“One zip of his zipper, maybe Israel goes down the drain.” Al was downcast now, deflated, seemingly with just enough energy to wrest the newspaper from Anne and shove it under his jacket as if to hide the evidence. “I feel sorry for them both, to tell the truth, sorry I mentioned it.”
Monica Lewinsky. Sex on everybody’s minds nowadays.
Not that it had been a woman at the heart of Al’s betrayal, not sex with another woman. But the secrecy had been as great, the humiliation as piercing as that cold steel speculum.
Ruth wanted to drop off the prescription at the drive-through at the CVS and come back on Friday, Al’s liquor-store Friday, to pick it up from the privacy of her own car, alone. But Al insisted on parking and going in. He had coupons from the weekly circular—batteries and toilet paper and shaving cream. As if he didn’t already have a stockpile of every battery known to mankind socked away in his underwear drawer. He didn’t even shave every day anymore, letting white stubble sprinkle his chin like the coarse kosher salt that the doctor no longer allowed them to sprinkle on their dinner.
“It’s on sale,” Al said, regarding his need for shaving cream, as if that settled it.
So Ruth found herself stuck on line at the pharmacy counter with all the other old people waiting to fill prescriptions for their hemorrhoid creams and their blood pressure pills. Well, better he should imagine her picking up hemorrhoid cream than what she was really waiting for.
Al hadn’t even inquired about Ruth’s need for the CVS, probably imagining female issues he wouldn’t want to discuss. Just to be sure, she’d headed him off with mention of dietary fiber. That would keep him busy for a while, browsing the dietary supplement aisle, comparing Metamucil to the CVS brand, powder to pills. Sure enough, by the time Ruth’s name had been called over the loudspeaker for all to hear, Al had returned with his shopping cart full of brown vitamin bottles, all the letters of the alphabet, plus those God-awful smelly fish oil capsules.
That night, Ruth locked the bathroom door and shmeared on Anne’s new cream, all over down there, as instructed. It felt good, was that possible? Already? Sensual and hinting at past tingling of desire. Was it the estrogen getting right to work, or was it the act of shmearing, the probing, the oiled touch of her own finger?
Ruth’s mother had never taught Ruth about sex. Whatever she knew as a girl, she’d learned from the house, a fading fourth-floor walkup, the groans of the floorboards echoing Pop’s exploits. And from Ma, the silent partner. Ma, who could scald a finger ironing one of Pop’s shirts and not cry out, who might burn her forearm reaching into the oven for a chicken but carve up the breast onto Pop’s plate before stopping to shmear butter on her own puckering blister.
“Divorce,” Ruth had dared to suggest, but only once, when she was in college and thought she knew things she could teach Ma, things she knew from books, not yet from actual experience.
“Oh, Ruthaleh,” Ma had said. “You’ll learn.” She had wagged a finger at Ruth, her forefinger with the crooked tip, broken in a story that changed from time to time. Caught in the butter churn or under a calf’s hoof in her childhood. Smacked by Pop in one of his rages. Crushed in a fit of heedless, riotous sex with a man not her husband. OK, that last was Ruth’s fantasy, not Ma’s—a burnt chicken more likely the source of Pop’s rage than another man. If there was pleasure in that house, it had to have been all Pop’s.
Not so for Ruth, lucky enough to fall for Al before her tall, gawky twenties turned into old-maid thirties—and lucky that he also fell for her. On the hard, flat cutting table of his parents’ basement tailor shop after closing, in the back seat that belonged to his all-American friend who had two nickels to buy a car, on her parents’ couch with her father snoring and her mother silently listening on the other side of the wall, just as Ruth had once been the listener. And then in those enlisted-man rented rooms as she’d followed him from base to base, experiencing the entire wide world of the United States of America, until she ended up back on her parents’ couch, alone with her breasts and her private parts pulsing. Al pulsed, too, she had dreamt, to the rhythm of the waves rocking his ship somewhere in the distant Pacific.
In those days, she’d thought to write a book about it, another pipe dream, how to cure all the ills of the world and make everyone happy through sex. Her friend Millie ought to know, Ma ought to know, the Japs shooting at Al ought to know. Al in his uniform was not necessarily handsome in the usual sense, but handsome to Ruth, with all those buttons where ordinary men had zippers, his pompadour buzzed down to a nubbly stubble that her fingertips read like Braille. That was the thing about sex—you could do it blind, forget to watch where you were going.
It had been the day before the engagement party for Joe’s eldest daughter, the one with the silly name, Sydney. July 18, 1969. Ruth sometimes forgot how old her own daughters were, and when she did, Debbie and Susan did not laugh, especially not Debbie. But she remembered that date. A week after her own wedding anniversary, a Friday, the 18th, 18 for chai. To Jews, chai meant life.
Al hadn’t counted on the engagement party. It was to be a garden party, although Ruth wouldn’t have called Joe and Saralee’s backyard, with its ordinary rhododendrons and mountain laurels, a garden. Record temperature was predicted, guaranteed to wilt. The invitation had called for elegant casual attire. That’s what it said—elegant casual—right there on the engraved vellum. Was this a trick to embarrass anyone who didn’t get it, anyone like Ruth?
Never mind the invitation, she’d bought a new dress with silk flounces and a deep V neckline. And she went to the bank to retrieve her diamond necklace from the vault, full cut diamonds in a platinum heart that would draw attention to her cleavage, suntanned cleavage that announced to anyone looking that even though she was just a schoolteacher, a substitute schoolteacher, Al could afford the club. Saralee would doubtless be decked in her diamonds. Ruth wasn’t fooled by elegant casual.
But the necklace wasn’t in the vault. There, among the wills and the mortgage papers and the Israel bonds, lay the midnight-blue velvet box with the jeweler’s name embossed in gold. But the box was empty, no diamond heart sparkling against its shiny satin lining.
Ruth had made a scene at the bank. Robbed, I’ve been robbed. Mr. Miller, the banker, was called from his office. Mr. Miller, who’d once explained every paragraph of that mortgage, who’d walked them through the advantages of low-interest college loans versus savings withdrawals for the girls, who always marked with a careful red X wherever Ruth had to sign. Now he was explaining the security of the vault, with its sign-in system and concrete encasement and double-key counterchecks. He pulled out the sign-in card for box number 42—nobody’s name on the list but Ruth’s and Al’s, marking the major occasions of their lives together by the ins-and-outs at the box, the deposit of the pay-off letter for their mortgage, the removal of the necklace for bar mitzvahs and other state occasions, the renewal of their passports “just in case” they might someday fly off together somewhere.
“A forgery,” Ruth declared, pointing to Al’s signature on the last line, back in November—maybe the mortgage pay-off, or the necklace for Thanksgiving? But had she worn the necklace last Thanksgiving? Really, it could have been stolen any time. When was the last time she’d worn it? Seen it? Her eyes grew bleary studying the overlapping signatures squeezed one after another into tiny spaces on close-drawn lines. Call the police; get the FBI on the case, fingerprints and handwriting analysis. “A forgery!” she repeated, insisting.
Mr. Miller had turned ruddy and fat when Ruth hadn’t been paying attention. His pillowy belly, now nudging Ruth aside, not to make a fuss in front of the other customers, wasn’t nearly as reassuring as his forearms had once been, hairy and firm beneath hard-working rolled-up sleeves through years of financial planning and paperwork. Now those fussy arms, that belly coaxed Ruth into his office with its soothing brown woods and beige fabrics. Someone ought to tell him so much brown and beige was not in fact soothing, merely plain.
The police showed up, one policeman, really, or policewoman to be more precise, whipping out a notebook from the pocket of her blue police-lady suit, as if she were a meter maid writing a $10 ticket. Maybe she was a meter maid, for all Ruth knew, called in just to quiet Ruth’s temper. But in the end, a complaint was filed, and Ruth was instructed to drive to the station, where she signed papers without benefit of reassuring red X’s. There the real policemen wore billy clubs and handcuffs clanking against thick thighs, and guns. Ruth had never been so close to a gun before. The desk officer’s was dark, almost black, hanging heavy from hip nearly to knee. If he wouldn’t shoot that robber, she would.
She couldn’t wait to tell Al the minute he got home from work, promptly at 5:30 every day, everything about Al steady and reliable, as unremarkable lately as brown and beige. She should have called him from the bank, or certainly from the police station—why hadn’t she thought of that? But she was unaccustomed to bothering him at the lab, where he toiled in his officious white coat, protecting society from food poisoning.
She put a bottle of white wine in the fridge the minute she got home, a gift from Joe and Saralee last Hanukkah, even though they knew Ruth always served brisket on Hanukkah and you didn’t drink white wine with brisket. But you could do white with chicken, Ruth was pretty sure, and that’s what she was serving tonight, Shabbos chicken, although she’d gotten it into the oven late. Al could wait for his dinner this once. They would have a glass of wine, and she’d tell him her story. Maybe, just maybe, they’d end up in the bedroom while the chicken roasted in a slow oven, like they used to in the old days, before children and dinner on the table like clockwork. Sure, she was angry about the necklace, and that was still quite upsetting, but also exhilarating. The whole afternoon had left her breathing a little faster, flushed with excitement at all that unexpected action and attention.
If she’d been expecting sex that night, that’s not what she got. Not that night, nor for months to come. Not for years to come, years, which was hard to admit, even now, even to herself. All she got that night was Al’s long, crazy story.
“It was me,” he said before untying his tie. Hadn’t she accosted him at the door, hat still in hand?
“You’d think they’d know us by now at the bank. It’s those new young tellers, that girl with the skirt up to her pupik. No wonder they don’t notice it’s not you or me signing our own names, what with everybody looking at her pupik.” The story poured out of Ruth, the indignation, there was no stopping her.
“They knew me,” Al said. “I’m the one.” He stood before her, shoulders slumped, arms dangling. “I signed my own name. I took the necklace.”
“For the party? Why didn’t you tell me? You think you’re doing me a favor, and you let me make a fool of myself?” Then, for a moment, Ruth felt sorry for Al, here she was yelling at him when he was only trying to be nice. But she’d seen the signatures, the dates on the card, not since last November. “Don’t try to make me feel better. I know the necklace is gone. Nobody’s been there for months.”
“Yes, months,” Al said. “Not for the party. For the mortgage.”
“I’m not talking about the mortgage. The mortgage was right there, where it belongs.”
“I needed money, to pay the mortgage.”
“The payoff letter, too, right there. I dropped it off myself, last year. That, I remember.” They’d gone out to celebrate when they’d finally paid off the mortgage, a French restaurant, had she worn the necklace? Surely there’d been wine with that dinner, and then what always came after wine, but she couldn’t possibly have lost the necklace. When was the last time she’d vacuumed under the bed? “Forget about the paper, it’s my necklace that’s gone. Stolen. Listen to what I’m saying.”
“You listen to me.” Was that Al talking to her in that tone? “I’m talking about money, to pay the mortgage, the new mortgage. I needed money.”
“What new mortgage? What money?”
“From the necklace. From selling the necklace.”
Now Ruth had nothing to say.
“Please, Ruth.” This was Al’s shushing voice, his consoling voice, but who exactly was he consoling? “I lost my job and I didn’t want to worry you and I remortgaged the house and then I couldn’t make the new mortgage payments and then I sold the necklace and that’s all there is to it.” He was still standing, they were both still standing, just barely inside the front door, and he spoke it all in one breath, as though if he stopped he’d never start again.
“Lost your job?”
“Thanksgiving.” As if one word at a time was all he could manage now.
“But you just got home from work,” Ruth said. “There’s your briefcase,” and she pointed to the old brown leather satchel he’d dropped inside the door—just dropped, only a minute ago?
“Not from work.”
“Of course work, with your briefcase,” she couldn’t stop repeating, as if that briefcase held all the answers. “Where else would you go every day? What have you been doing? Since Thanksgiving?” Al wasn’t talking now, and Ruth couldn’t stop. “Didn’t want to worry me? Since Thanksgiving? You didn’t want to worry me?” She couldn’t stop. “You lied to me?” she said. “You’ve been lying all this time?”
“I never lied.”
“I just walked out the door.”
“With your briefcase?”
“Enough with the goddamn briefcase.”
“Now you’re cursing at me? You? The liar?”
And on and on. Words Ruth should be ashamed of. Words Ruth was ashamed of, later, much later. Words Ruth would not repeat, not even to herself.
And after the words came a long, sorry look at the bankbook, with its bleeding gush of withdrawals and that deposit last November and a final balance nowhere near what Ruth would have expected. The bankbook, oh my God the bank, what would she tell them at the bank? What would she tell Mr. Miller? What would they tell the police? They’d have to find a new bank, start over. Maybe even move. It was like starting someone else’s strange, new life.
In the end there was wine poured down the drain, burnt chicken pulled from the oven and left to spoil on the counter, uneaten, and finally Al’s pillow tossed in the hall, his pajamas, even his toothbrush tossed onto the hall carpet, never mind that it was dirty. And doors slammed shut, doors that wouldn’t open for months, or more. At that moment Ruth thought they’d stay shut forever. If he was a liar, who was he? Al, no better than Pop.
This was a hurt that could not be healed by sex. Not by sex with Al. Eventually, Ruth had ended up in bed alone. If Al slept that night, he slept somewhere else.
Ruth continued to shmear every day now, her own private little bursts of pleasure, and tried not to think about magazine articles she’d read threatening the dangers of estrogen. Like her years on the pill, when she’d had to weigh her risks—unnatural hormones, or another pregnancy?—and she’d done what had to be done then, same as now. She put Anne’s tube of cream next to her toothbrush so she wouldn’t forget, never mind she kept almost reaching for it instead of the toothpaste by mistake.
Luckily there was no risk of Al making that mistake. He believed in natural, healthy and natural, and still brushed his teeth with a paste of baking soda and water, like his old-world mother had taught him. Al, who used to put his mouth down there, who used to like to put his mouth down there, where Ruth had liked it, too.
The hormonal danger, if there was any, came from ingested estrogen, Anne had assured, not topical. Would Anne be able to tell, at Saralee’s Thanksgiving table, that the cream was already working? Would Anne already see a younger glow in Ruth’s cheeks, an ease in her step? If she did, of course, she wouldn’t remark. Dinner-table conversation—polite and effusive—would revolve around Saralee’s meal, her turkey, her two types of stuffing (country herb and cornbread), her silken gravy, her sweet potatoes that looked ridiculous with those silly marshmallows on top but seduced your mouth with caramelized essence of corn syrup or molasses or some other ingredient from her secret family recipe that Saralee would never reveal. Ruth used to contribute her own family’s Thanksgiving sweet potatoes, stewed into Ma’s compote with turnips and prunes, until she tired of trying to compete. But the girls missed her compote, or so they said. Now Susan made it; she’d be bringing it this year. Ruth would stick to her assignment: the pies, apple and pumpkin.
Al drove Ruth to Sam’s Club to place the order. He had coupons for paper plates, the good kind, the Chinet, never mind the girls wouldn’t be home to stay for the long weekend like they used to. Susan lived across town with her own children, two still at home, and Debbie wasn’t even coming in from California for the holiday.
“We need Chinet?” Ruth said.
“Maybe the kids will come by for breakfast on Friday,” Al said, meaning Susan’s kids, the grandchildren, “if I tell them I’m making pancakes.” Pancakes, the one thing Al knew how to cook, weekend breakfast for Susan and Debbie, when they used to clank around in the kitchen, whispering so Ruth could sleep late, as if anyone could sleep through that ruckus.
“Teenagers don’t get up for breakfast.”
“Chocolate chip pancakes? They might, you’ll see.” He was so eager, obliviously eager, hoisting the giant Sam’s Club sack of plates into their wagon.
They had to stand in line at the bakery counter just to fill out the order form. Ruth should have stopped in last week when she was on Route 1 for her manicure—might as well, since Thanksgiving wasn’t her turn in the kitchen—but the polish had to dry, and she knew Al liked Sam’s Club, would miss it if she went without him.
“How many?” Al asked when he got ahold of the order clipboard. There was a girl behind the counter who was paying no attention, no wonder the line was so slow. She had a pierced lip and navy blue fingernails, and Ruth swore she could see a nail file poking out of the girl’s apron pocket.
“One of each, apple and pumpkin,” Ruth said.
“They’re big, and none of us needs more than one slice.”
“One is enough.”
“All right. I’ll pick them up on Tuesday,” he said, going down the checklist.
“Tuesday? Are you crazy?” Ruth said. The girl behind the counter looked up from inspecting her fingernails for cracks or snags that would need attention. “Wednesday.” Ruth lowered her voice. “You’ll come Wednesday.”
“They’ll be so crowded.”
“You want fresh pies, don’t you?” And then, to compensate, “OK, mark two pumpkins.” She pointed to the spot on the checklist for him to change the 1 to a 2, then thrust the clipboard into those blue fingernails before they could get busy with their filing.
In the end, Anne’s magic cream was never put to use, and Ruth would always wonder if she should have let Al pick up the pies on Tuesday. In the Wednesday-before-Thanksgiving madhouse at the Sam’s Club bakery counter, Al suffered a massive heart attack. Ruth would forever after imagine navy blue fingernails pressing at his chest, pierced lips breathing into his. Did Al drop straight to the floor, or did the crush of shoppers hold him up? His body (his body!) didn’t reveal any blood or bruises, not when Ruth finally saw him, which wasn’t even at the hospital. Who knew know that a DOA—that’s what they call it, DOA, like in a movie—goes straight to the morgue.
What did the floor at Sam’s Club look like? Was it cold and dirty? Surely some kind of linoleum, but who looked at their feet in Sam’s Club? To Ruth, linoleum brought to mind Ma’s kitchen, the tan-and-white marbled tiles Ma used to have in her kitchen. Asbestos tiles, weren’t they? Steer clear of those if you’re watching out for your health.
These were the things Ruth thought of when she was not sleeping, failing to sleep, alone, in her big empty bed, the bed Al had moved back into so many years ago.
One day, he’d started to make advances, to court her, resting his hand on hers in the movies, sitting next to her on the couch to watch TV with their thighs touching, coming home from the Stop & Shop with canned tuna on sale and a paper cone of yellow daisies. They weren’t young anymore, back then, but they weren’t old yet either. Nixon had been president, and Ruth had gone back to work, and she’d felt sexy pulling up nylons every morning, then tired kicking off heels at night. She had learned to do for herself what Al was no longer doing for her, but it wasn’t the same. And one Friday, when Millie’s father sent Al home from the store with a bottle of Burgundy, real Burgundy, from France, instead of Manischewitz for Shabbos … well, she wasn’t wet then, when he touched her, not like before, but she wasn’t dry either, not like now.
So they got back together. But Ruth had almost wished “sleeping together” didn’t actually require sleeping together. She’d settled into a nice routine, sleeping alone, even enjoying it, stretching her legs, falling asleep to silence instead of snoring and late-night TV. Couldn’t their bodies join for pleasure and then part for sleep? Would the girls have to know? Separate bedrooms, did it have to sound like such a shande, a shame, a failure. It wasn’t a crime. So, why did the bed feel so empty now? So vastly, enormously, eye-of-the-storm empty.
Back then, during the anger, before the reunion in bed, Ruth’s daughter Susan had suggested she divorce Al. It was Susan who was the college girl then, actually just out of college and newly married to that Howard, whom Ruth didn’t know yet, but he seemed sweet enough.
Ruth’s family didn’t divorce. No matter what you got, you stuck it out and made it work. Susan, who thought she knew all there was to know about love. She didn’t know a whit about emptiness and loneliness and desire.
To this day, Susan still thought she knew it all. “I would pay someone to have sex with my husband,” she’d just recently said, tossing it off like some kind of a joke. “I’ve had enough, seriously, I would pay someone.” Imagine. And Susan had actually said it in print, in one of her silly columns in the local rag, although thank God in the newspaper she’d attributed the remark to one of her anonymous interviewees. Poor Howard. How old was Susan now? Probably around Ruth’s age in ’69.
Al’s Chinet came in handy after all. Debbie flew in, and Susan’s Annie came down from college with her boyfriend Bryan. Ruth’s cousin Sandra was summoned to deal with the cemetery—she was in charge now, secretary of the long-defunct family circle, the only remaining job being who would phone to ensure the correct grave would be dug as needed in the family plot, in this case the one next to Ma. Ruth was supposed to lie next to Ma. Then she arrived at the cemetery, with Al already in the casket, and there it was, a raw brown hole already dug next to Ma. Did it never occur to Sandra to ask, not to just dig up the very next spot in their family row?
The girls cried at the funeral. Well, of course they would cry. Their father after all. Ruth did not cry. She stood tall, erect, pulled up to her full height over the grave, the cold, empty hole in the ground, empty that is except for Al.
Back at the house afterward, Susan, red-faced and sniveling, looked at Ruth’s dry eyes and asked, “Did you love him, Mom?”
“None of your business,” Ruth replied, then snapped her lips shut. Was that her father’s voice coming out of her own mouth? What had become of her with this death, this loss, only two days old?
Of course, those sharp words only made Susan cry worse. Ruth fled to the kitchen, where the remnants of the picked-over shivah luncheon would have to be cleaned up, to make her a plate of sweets that people had brought—cookies and brownies that looked like some fool might have purchased them at Sam’s Club. Thank God for Saralee’s entirely homemade pecan pie with its fluted crust that she had clearly crimped with her own two hands. Susan followed her into the kitchen, probably not to embarrass her in front of the leftover company—a handful of cousins, all that remained alive from Ruth’s original 12 first cousins, the rest of them over there in their own family rows at the cemetery, plus some neighbors who meant to be nice but ought to know it was time to go home.
“I know, I know,” Ruth said. “Don’t fuss at me, not today.”
“Mom,” Susan said. “He was my father.” This was not like Susan—it was usually Debbie who would pick a fight, stand up for herself if necessary.
Ruth sliced a big piece of pecan pie and pushed the plate into Susan’s hands. “Eat,” she said. “You have to eat, keep up your strength.” What she didn’t say was, And he was my husband. “You’ll like this,” she added. “Saralee’s pie, delicious.”
A week went by. The shivah week, a houseful of company, cooked chickens and deli platters delivered to her table, cousins and neighbors trying to be helpful, packing up leftovers into Tupperwares in her refrigerator—opaque Tupperwares full of mysteries that would eventually get tossed. They used every last one of Al’s Chinets, and Susan went out to buy more at the Stop & Shop. She came back with ordinary paper plates, the flimsy kind that inevitably wet your lap, plus eggs and milk and a loaf of bread and two kinds of cereal, flakes and Chex. “I didn’t remember which kind you like, Ma,” she explained, as if Ruth would never go to the store again, alone.
The night before Debbie was to fly out, Susan carried over a suitcase and moved right in. A pajama party, she called it. Ruth didn’t think party was the appropriate word, but she ended up appreciating their memories of pancakes with Daddy, their childish delight in deciding to cook said pancakes for supper, their banter over who would scrub the skillet, wash the dishes. They’d used real plates now that everyone else had gone home.
“Why waste money on paper?” Ruth had said, “just for us,” although she’d almost changed her mind, just for spite, when Debbie made a point of how bad those paper plates were for the environment. What had gotten into her, to make her spite her own daughter? That night, Ruth lay in her bed, her big, empty bed, listening to the laughter that seeped out from under the girls’ closed bedroom door.
The next day, when Debbie was gone, Susan insisted on staying. As if Ruth needed a chaperone. As if she might do something dangerous if left to her own devices. Ruth put up with it for two more days before sending her on her way. “Think of poor Howard,” Ruth said.
“Phooey on Howard,” Susan said, but she packed up her pajamas and her toothbrush and her creams (creams for hands and face, not elsewhere, as far as Ruth could tell) and went home to her husband.
The peace and quiet that Ruth had often dreamt of was not really so peaceful. Not even so quiet, Al’s voice continuing to remark over the price of tuna in the newspaper, over the weather report on the evening news when Ruth turned on the TV just so she wouldn’t have to hear him comment on Saralee’s cold leftover turkey, from the Thanksgiving dinner that never was. Tender, she heard Al say, juicy, and she was forced to agree. Then he reminded her she didn’t know how long since Saralee had cooked that turkey—better to zap it good and hot in the microwave, just in case of bacteria.
That night, Ruth noticed Anne’s cream on her bathroom vanity, as if it had been lost for a week amid the clutter of the girls and their toothbrushes and their toothpastes and creams, Susan’s Colgate and $50 dollar face cream and some kind of beeswax something that she swore kept her hands and heels like a new baby’s. The girls had their own bathroom down the hall, had not actually spread their clutter into Ruth’s, but the house had been cluttered by them, the very air cluttered with them.
Al’s box of Arm & Hammer sat right there next to the sink. Ruth thought to bring it into the kitchen, to absorb all those smells from the Tupperwares in the fridge. But then she thought the hell with it and tossed it into the bathroom trash. She tossed Anne’s cream, her useless, pointless cream, into the trash right on top. The hell with that, too.
Ruth had always assumed she’d die a one-man virgin, that’s what she and her girlfriends used to call it, a woman who never had sex with anyone besides her husband. She’d thought about it, sure, in darkened movie theaters, in her own darkened bedroom—another man’s arms, another man’s kiss.
When her friend Millie had been widowed so young and unexpected (although 45 hadn’t seemed young at the time!), Ruth had feared she’d be forced to marry her Jake’s younger brother, the slender and effeminate, never-married younger brother. Ever since Millie became a Hasid, she lived by different rules, ancient rules involving blood sacrifices and blood relatives, although thankfully not that rule, not for Millie, who did eventually find a new man, her own new man, on her own.
Ruth’s modern friends, Ethel and Ethel, had moved to Florida after their husbands had passed at more suitable ages (or so Ruth had thought when they’d both died just last year). They bought a condo and moved in together, like roommates in college. Roommates who double-dated, prowled the golf clubs and the senior concert series on the lookout for men, old men who needed women still capable of driving at night.
“Take a class,” Debbie had said before boarding her plane.
“Take a vacation,” Susan had said before going home to Howard. “Why not go visit the Ethels?” Susan was probably having sex with Howard right now, not paying somebody else to do it, but doing it herself, and enjoying it, enjoying the comfort of Howard’s familiar arms, Howard’s familiar smell, the familiar bedtime bristle on Howard’s familiar chin.
Ruth fetched Anne’s cream out of the bathroom trash, stripped off her clothes, and gave herself one final good-bye shmear, all around down there, every one of her own familiar, private parts. The parts that still felt the same as when she’d first touched them at age 12. The parts that might not work the same as when she was 12, but you couldn’t tell that by the touch of them, the feel of them. The parts that had nearly atrophied from disuse, literally dried up from anger as much as from age. Anger at Al. And this new anger, at his sudden and premature abandonment. She shmeared and rubbed and scrubbed and abraded. Goddamn you, Al. So much easier to blame Al than to blame herself.
Then she cried, alone, in the shower, in the dark, in the big empty bed, and why did she keep calling it empty, when after all wasn’t she here, Ruth, her body in that bed? She cried and cried, got it all over with at once, until her eyes were dry.
To read more Tablet Original Fiction, click here.