Swimming and tsnius in a midwestern heat wave
“So can you recite their names and birthdays?” I asked Larry. It was almost dinner time again. He’d just popped the lasagna and garlic bread into the oven and was pouring lettuce out of a bag, chopping up cucumbers for a salad. A cluster of the boys were doing gymnastics on the kitchen floor, Menashe dangling upside down from twelve-year-old Akiva’s waist, Noam swinging from his back.
“Yeah, I can,” Larry said, laughing. “But when they page me at work I have them punch in their number in the birth order. Otherwise, whoever answers the phone when I call back asks the first five people he sees if they’d called me and I eventually get tired of waiting.”
He moved on to a pile of dishes in the sink. My secular friends would be envious; their purportedly egalitarian husbands don’t do half of what Larry does around the house and they have twice as much time. In addition to laundry and dishes, Larry mops the floors and does all the mending. (“Beth has never sewn on a button,” he boasted.) Every Friday afternoon, he gets down on his hands and knees and scrubs six bathroom floors to prepare for Shabbos. That domestic competence predated his piety—credit his mother, who made sure her three boys pitched in at home. At any rate, equality in housework is one thing; in the House of God it’s another. Larry’s daughters don’t attend yeshiva. They can’t study Talmud, can’t hold positions of leadership at the synagogue, can’t become rabbis or cantors. Beth’s authority at school stops at the door of the Hebrew classrooms. Women have fewer
mitzvot, or commandments, to fulfill, too (supposedly because they’d conflict with the higher calling of household responsibilities). That’s why Orthodox men will tell you they thank God each morning for not making them female.
“What you don’t understand is that we may have different roles for men and women, but the wife is not
inferior,” Larry told me. “Beth is not inferior. It’s a distortion of American culture to think that the person who has the greatest influence on a child’s values and development is inferior to the one who brings in the money. Men may have imposed that ideology, but the women who didn’t glorify the domestic role contributed to it, too.”
I flinched; I’d been one of those renegade women and secretly feared my miscarriage was retribution. At the same time, Larry’s perspective seemed as skewed as my own. Separate could never be equal when one half of the equation was economically dependent on the other. Housework would never be valued until men participated in it fully. I doubted that transformation was possible in a community so invested in differences.
As a treat, Beth had arranged for the kids to swim at a friend’s house, but since her nephew, Sha’uli, was visiting—and
tsnius prohibited the Browns from seeing members of the opposite sex, aside from parents and siblings, in bathing suits—the girls were going to one pool with her and the boys to another with Larry. She explained this to me so deftly that it wasn’t until later I realized Sha’uli wasn’t the only concern: the Brown males couldn’t see me in a bathing suit, either.
I hadn’t brought one anyway, so I only dangled my legs in the water. In capris and a tank top, though, I was still flashing more skin than Beth. On the off chance that the husband of the couple who owned the pool might come home and catch a glimpse of her, she swam in her sheitl, a calf-length skirt, and an enormous T shirt which read, “Who Are All These Kids and Why Are They Calling Me Mom?” Of all of the customs I witnessed at the Browns,
tsnius rankled me most. Nineteen-year-old Shira worked out on the treadmill in the basement wearing an ankle-length skirt and long sleeves. Even five-year-old Esther Neima covered up. “We’re taught that what’s important is the inside of a person,” Larry had told me. “So the idea is not to advertise your body. You shouldn’t neglect the outside, but if you dress to call attention only to your physicality, what does that mean?” I got the point, but to me it seemed that tsnius, like the Muslim practice of purdah, could be too easily manipulated to silence women, to bar us from public places, to force the shrouding of ankles and eyes.
A bank of thunderheads rolled in. I shifted to a lounge chair under the eaves where I wouldn’t get wet. I watched Beth shushing and coaxing, playing with and reprimanding the six children who were with us. The rising humidity made her seem far away, as if she were behind glass. I had come to respect Beth, but I’d never be at ease with her. I’d always be comparing us, wondering what it would be like to be her, flirting with the possibility then rejecting it. And I’d never really understand.
We drove home in silence. I couldn’t tell if she noticed or cared that we’d run out of things to say. I sensed, though, that she was weary of my presence. Maybe that was just me—the novelty of being around fifteen children and hundreds of arbitrary rules was beginning to wear thin. Beth flipped on a cassette of religious—themed doo-wop songs. All of the tapes in her car featured men’s voices; women’s are considered too licentious for male ears.
Rebbe tried to teach us Torah each and every day We just closed our eyes and ears to what he had to say Every afternoon we’d sit and watch our TV sets Talking about the Yankees, the Dodgers, and the Mets
Harrison Ford be damned—I wanted to return to the twenty-first century.
By 10:30 I couldn’t stifle my yawns. Beth noticed and offered to drive me back to my hotel. She had to go to the grocery store anyway to buy a thank-you balloon for the couple whose pool we’d used. She wanted to have it waiting at their kosher butcher shop when they arrived for work the next morning. There was still a sink full of dishes to wash, bills to pay, and boxes of trash and recycling to drag to the curb. Larry had to be at work by seven the next morning to start another sixteen-hour day. Even so, he offered to drive me to the airport.
“My flight takes off at six A.M.,” I said, shaking my head.
“That’s okay,” he said. “When do you want to leave your hotel?”
Hadassah tugged on my pants leg and I hoisted her in my arms. With her dark eyes and blonde Shirley Temple curls, she resembled the daughter I imagined Larry and I would have had if we’d married. He had noticed, too. “If I couldn’t prove that Beth was her mother,” he cracked, “I’d be suspicious.”
I held her closer, had a wild urge to cut and run.
It’s not fair, I thought. Larry had fifteen children; why couldn’t I even have one? If I had done the “right” thing, followed the proscribed path, would I be a mother now? Hadassah began to squirm. I tousled her curls and—though it ripped my heart out to do it—handed her to her father. We weren’t in high school anymore; I’d made my choices.
“Larry,” I said, as I turned away. “Do me a favor. Sleep the extra hour tomorrow instead of driving me. Consider it my gift to you.”
I came home from the airport to a message from Risa, who’d called to fill me in on the pathology report from the miscarriage. “You are the last woman I want to have to tell this,” she said when we spoke. “You had something called a partial molar pregnancy.”
“It happens in about one in every thousand pregnancies,” she explained. “It’s a condition in which two sperm fertilize an egg.”
Hmm, I thought: Steven must’ve been overcompensating for that insulting semen analysis. Rather than twins, Risa continued, a fetus with too many chromosomes to survive is created as well as abnormal cells in the placenta. If any of those cells remained after the D&C, they could implant, turning into tumors that could spread and, without chemotherapy, eventually be deadly.
It was a pregnancy that could turn into cancer. Who had ever heard of such a thing?
“What are the chances that will happen?” I asked.
“I don’t know. In a full molar pregnancy the chances are about one in five. It’s not clear with a partial molar. But the way we tell is by drawing your blood every week and checking for a rise in the pregnancy hormone. If it goes up and you’re not pregnant, something’s wrong.”
“But what if I
She paused. “I’m sorry. You have to use contraception for a while. If you got pregnant there’d be no way to tell if you had a tumor. And if you did develop a tumor it would be dangerous to the baby.”
I could barely speak. “How long do I have to wait?”
She paused again. “I’m going to do some research. Normally it’s a year, but maybe it doesn’t have to be that long. At least six months.”
Six months? A year? I thought about Larry and Beth—no way could this be God’s will.
“Do you want to know the sex?” Risa asked before hanging up.
“No,” I said evenly, though I felt like howling. “I don’t think so.”
When I told Steven the news, he wrapped his arms around me. He wasn’t worried, he said. “Even if we have to wait for a year to try again, that’s twelve extra months that we can enjoy being together, that we can do fun things as a couple.”
I buried my face in his neck and cried, newly grateful, after my visit to the Browns, for his touch. I felt like the luckiest unlucky woman in the world.
February 22, 2007