New husband. New baby. So why did she want to run home?
It figures that Mali Baum née Sheiner would need a C-section after 21 hours of labor. It just follows the not-so-comedy of errors that has been her life since she married Nosson two years earlier.
First the apartment on the kollel block had fallen through, and they’d ended up in that hole of a basement. Then they’d both gotten mono and been out for the count, and Smith & Cohen had fired her. Of course, that hadn’t been the official reason, but she knew. And then, to top it all off, they’d been burgled. Who gets burgled in Lakewood?
She could check her mezuzahs, or go to an ayin hara lady. Or she could just look at Nosson. Because honestly, that’s where all the broken, potholed roads lead to.
He hadn’t signed on the apartment in time, the realtor said. He hadn’t locked the door before they went grocery shopping, even though he’d been positive he had and refused to go back to check. And honestly, he’d gotten mono first. Maybe that one wasn’t his fault, but it was his fault that he curled up on the couch and moaned every single day for two months straight, while she cooked and worked and shopped her way through it. Just the memory makes her roll her eyes.
But today really takes the cake. Nosson outdid himself in the unhelpful department. Again, maybe it’s not his fault she needed a C-section, but he definitely didn’t make it any less inevitable. If anything, he made her try less. Because when in the throes of back-labor, the thought of co-parenting with Nosson was just plain exhausting.
The baby starts to cry, and the sweet helplessness of the sound makes Mali’s eyes fill. She cranes her neck to peer into the plastic crib. The baby’s tiny eyes are squeezed tightly shut, and her head is turned to the side, as if to say, “I’ll just lie here and cry, don’t trouble yourself about me.”
Mali tries to sit up; a deep burn spreads across her middle.
Stupid, stupid C-section.
She presses the call button, and Natalie, the curly-haired nurse, pops her head in.
“Need something, hun?”
Oh, so many things, Mali thinks.
“Thanks. The baby is crying,” is what she says.
Natalie lifts the baby and peers at Mali. “You think you’re up to holding her?”
Mali does a quick mental review. Everything hurts. Everything. So par for the course, then.
“Yes, I want to hold her. Thank you.”
Natalie makes soft crooning noises and bends to lift the baby. Mali winces just looking at her movements.
“Isn’t she amazing?” the nurse says, bundling her safely into Mali’s aching arms.
Amazing that something so pure can come out of something so misshapen, Mali thinks.
“Amazing,” she echoes aloud.
Nosson says chassidim don’t name for two weeks. Mali looks at his clean-shaven face and chup and tries to figure out why he thinks he’s chassidish, but whatever. She’s given up trying to understand his hodge-podge of minhagim. “Because my father does it like that,” is a stupid answer in her book.
“Kay,” she says.
She looks down at the bundle in her arms. “We’ll just call you Baby Girl ‘till then,” she says into the downy hair.
Baby Girl makes a small sound that Mali could spend the rest of her life listening to.
Now this is love, she thinks drowsily. This is love.
They’d hired a baby nurse, a gift from Mali’s parents, back when they thought they’d be in their basement hole two days after birth. Sandra, highly recommended from Nannies Plus, was all set to move in for six weeks. But now that Mali can’t lift her own baby, or anything at all, that plan is nixed. Just the thought of living with Nosson, Sandra, and Baby Girl, incapacitated, in bed, unable to escape, makes her want to claw the ugly striped wallpaper off the hospital wall.
Nosson comes back into the room, deposits a caramel iced latte carefully on her side tray.
“Thanks,” Mali mumbles.
She doesn’t look at him.
“Now isn’t that sweet,” Natalie smiles, bustling the baby back into her crib and wheeling her out for a checkup.
“Sure,” Mali says. Sweet. So very sweet.
The room suddenly seems bare and empty without her daughter in it. She shudders. Alone. She feels alone.
“You must be so tired,” Nosson says to her.
She nods. “I am,” she whispers. “I’m so tired, Nosson. I want to go home.”
He smiles. “A few more days and then you will, Mali.”
He doesn’t get it. “Not to that hole, Nosson. I want to go back to Brooklyn.”
She knew he wouldn’t come. There’s a lot she doesn’t know about her husband, mainly his deep opinions, hopes, and dreams. She doesn’t know what he thinks of Kiddush clubs and lace-top wigs and all the other topics that regular couples seem to debate ad nauseum.
She’s never asked him where he sees himself in ten years, and honestly, that one she’s never really wanted to hear. She does know that he likes vacationing in Miami, they both love Starbucks and long walks on the boardwalk. That’s what most of their dates had been about. But Mali didn’t know how to ask more than that, and Nosson never really volunteered anything more, so their two years of marriage had started off as fun and light, but eventually they felt like two strangers sharing a cramped, depressing living space.
One thing she’d bet on is that Nosson wasn’t going to be moving into her parents’ home in Brooklyn for the duration of three weeks, to watch them coddle her and nurture her in the way he’d described as “dysfunctional.” And honestly, she hadn’t tried that hard to convince him. She nodded along as he protested about seder and chavrusas, then just said emphatically, “But I need my mother to help me right now. I’m going to Brooklyn. Okay, Nosson?”
She shifts Baby Girl more securely in her arms and tries not to gasp as her stitches pulled. “We are going to Brooklyn.”
Nosson raises his eyebrows.
“Me and the baby,” she says hastily. “But Nosson, my mother will take good care of us. Don’t you worry.”
She can tell he knows she’s purposely misunderstanding his expression, but she doesn’t care. He just stands there, at the foot of her bed, his arms at his sides, looking strangely out of place. She could tell him she wants him to come with them, but she won’t. She doesn’t have to do everything. And she’s annoyed that he needs her to.
“I… so I’ll go to Lakewood, to yeshivah, and join you for Shabbos.”
Mali nods, amazed at the sense of relief washing over her, an actual physical sensation.
Nosson’s staring at her, demanding something of her, but she doesn’t look up.
“Say bye-bye to Abba,” she says softly into the velvet bundle in her arms. Nosson makes a noise, but all she does is press the call button.
“Just going to hand her off to the nurse,” she explains, shifting. And when she looks up again, Nosson is gone.
Well, then. The nurse passes her the bag he brought with him. Feta cheese salad and a chocolate Danish. Perfect, she’s starving.
The house looks exactly the same. Modern-chic decor, waxed floors, the scent of vanilla-spice aroma oil permeating the wide foyer. The scent of home. Mali squeezes her mother’s hand.
“Welcome, darling! My baby and her baby…”
Mali grins, lighthearted, happy. Old Mali. Single Mali.
“No tears yet, Ma! Just wait ‘till she’s up in middle of the night. Then you can cry.” They laugh. Mr. Sheiner brings up the rear, pushing the Doona. Mali settles onto the leather dinette bench, and Mrs. Sheiner bustles around, popping a capsule into the Nespresso, pulling out macarons and Danishes and all of Mali’s favorite treats.
“A new mother must eat,” she states.
Mali is more than happy to oblige, but first she’ll check on Baby Girl.
“Daddy, do you mind peeking at her?”
Mr. Sheiner comes back, holding a very sad, swaddled baby.
“Shimon! Honestly, just as Mali was about to eat! Now she’ll have to feed her on an empty stomach. Why? Just why?”
Mali scoops the baby into her arms, overcome suddenly with the desire to shield her baby, to clap her hands over the tiny ears and sing at the top of her lungs. Maybe she was losing it… she took a deep breath, let it out. “Oh, it’s fine Ma. Thanks, Daddy. Guess I’ll go to the couch?”
Mrs. Sheiner escorts her to the den, and Mali settles back, smiling wide so she won’t cry, thanking her parents for the new nursing pillow and cover, laughing and joking about how she has no idea what’s she doing but hopefully Baby Girl does, all the while trying to figure out how her happiness had faded after 15 minutes.
Staying in her childhood room was a bit much.
“I’m sorry, darling, we hadn’t known you were coming, and of course, your brother is using the guest room and garage for storage while they do renovations. I don’t know why he can’t rent a storage space, but I’m not getting involved. Anyway, it’ll be nice for you to be back here, I think. We did do a great job on the room, didn’t we?”
Mali looks around appraisingly. My beautiful bomb shelter.
The words rise unbidden, and she pushes them down, hard.
“Still gorgeous, Ma. Weird to be here with a baby.”
Mrs. Sheiner rubs her shoulder. “Good weird, though, right?
“Shimon! What is taking so long?” she yells down the hallway. “Mali, now what’s this meshigas with Nosson? What’s he going to do in Lakewood alone? He doesn’t want to be with his wife and newborn baby?”
Don’t. Panic. Breathe. Just breathe.
She inhales through her mouth, exhales through the nose. Ahh, brings back good memories of labor pains. “Oh, it just made more sense, I guess, for us. Like, his chavrusas are there, and here, you and Daddy can help me, so…”
She trails off, sits gingerly on the bed, and the ghosts of a thousand other Malis float up to sit with her.
Now it’s time to kick her mother out of her childhood room without sounding like she’s 15 again.
There’s a stack of magazines and a box of chocolates on the nightstand when she wakes up. She peers at the bassinet her parents had borrowed from Shevy; it’s empty. Well, then, time for some self-care. She struggles into a sitting position, cracks open the truffles, and flips right to the serials. This is the life.
A knock on the door heralds Mother dearest holding a sleeping Baby Girl. “I’ll just slip her right here,” Ma whispers. She places her into the bassinet, and Mali watches her, overcome by the fact that she too is now a mother.
Hopefully… she breaks the eye contact, breaks the thought.
Mrs. Sheiner leans down and kisses her cheek. “Decaf Nespresso?”
She delves back into the magazine just as her phone buzzes. Nosson. She wants to talk to him, to curl up, chatting happily with him like she did when she was engaged, when she missed being with him and counted down the days till she would see him next. But she also wants him to leave her alone.
Blame postpartum? Blame her childhood?
She slides the phone under the blanket and reads on.
At night the ghosts come out again. Baby Girl finishes her feed, and Mali just leans back and looks at her tiny, delicate, beautiful features.
She closes her eyes, sees little Mali hiding in the closet, hands over her ears. Teenage Mali joins her, but with headphones and earbuds, blasting music that will drown out the yells, the insults from downstairs. But the toxicity slips under the door crack, poisoning everything it comes into contact with.
They couldn’t help themselves. She sees that now. They don’t know how to communicate, have never known how to communicate. She pities her parents, she understands her parents.
Because it’s so much easier not to try sometimes.
She knows what not to do: Don’t yell, don’t slam doors, throw plates, change the locks. But how to convey to the person you’re most vulnerable with what you want, what you dream, what you wish for… she’s clueless.
Like during birth, when all she wanted was her playlist and mood lighting and maybe her memory foam pillow, and he kept shouting “breathe!” and offering her cheese Danishes.
Those frustrating 21 hours of labor resulted in a C-section. And that C-section resulted in the most beautiful thing she’d ever laid eyes on.
She opens her eyes, looks around the pretty room in the glow of the Kosher lamp and the term 16-year-Mali coined springs to mind once again. My beautiful bomb shelter.
Her phone buzzes again.
But better a bomb shelter than a battlefield.
Ma makes her take a walk the next day. She holds onto the Doona handlebar for dear life, feeling very, very old. Daddy videos them on his phone. Mali poses, knowing she looks a whole lot better than she feels.
“Nosson called,” Daddy says conversationally as they perch on the patio benches.
Ma whips her head out of the carriage. “Why’s he calling you? Tell him to call his wife.”
Daddy’s teeth are clenched. “I did. But he says he can’t get through.”
Mrs. Sheiner flicks a sheitel lock over her shoulder. “I told you the cell service is spotty in this house. If you would just listen to me…”
“Maybe if you would stop nagging…”
Mali tunes them out. Nosson had called Daddy. Funny. She should call him. Make sure he has what to eat and knows he should pick up his shirts from the cleaners.
She pulls out her phone. It’s bein hasedarim. Perfect.
She looks at Mommy cooing at Baby, Daddy videoing them both. A ray of sun is painting everything golden, and Ma’s manicured gardens have never looked more beautiful.
“Nosson?” He’s angry. No, he’s hurt. She wants to feel bad, but she feels nothing.
“How… are you doing?” he asks.
I’m numb, she thinks. “I’m great, baruch Hashem,” she says. “How are you?”
“Yeah. Listen, I’ll see you Friday. What do you want me to bring you?”
Her nose wrinkles. She doesn’t want anything from Lakewood. “Nothing. I’ve got everything I need here.”
She listens to her own voice and closes her eyes. “I mean, looking forward to Friday, Nosson.”
But he has already hung up.
And she still doesn’t know if he has what to eat for dinner.
Do you care? She asks herself.
She doesn’t have an answer.
Ma orders in sushi and Eli and Shevy come over. Mali basks in the compliments and the brachos, accepts gifts graciously, and dodges questions about Nosson.
I’m happy, she thinks.
She watches Ma and Daddy sitting at opposite ends of the tables, stalking off to opposite sides of the house when the last piece of ginger has been scooped up and soy sauce wiped off the glass-topped table.
The bell rings as she settles down to feed the baby.
Ma knocks and sticks her head in.
“It’s a package from Nosson, sweetie.” Mali takes the bag and looks in.
Sushi. Typical. She rolls her eyes and hands it to Ma.
They laugh together. Ma takes the bag to the kitchen, Mali sighs contentedly and snuggles the baby.
She remembers the week before her wedding, thinking seven days have never, in the history of time, ever taken so long and been so quick before. She knew people who cried the night before; bidding goodbye to their childhood was hard. But not her. She couldn’t leave fast enough. The elaborate wedding, custom gown, they’d all been accessories to her escape plan. Nosson was the exit she’d been looking for.
She’d made it through the minefield intact, and that itself was a miracle.
But maybe she’d been wrong, all along. Maybe she hadn’t escaped. Maybe she’d been poisoned a long time ago.
She takes out her phone. Thanks for the sushi.
She imagines Nosson receiving her text. Generic, bland, just a thank you. She knows Nosson was trying to make her happy, trying to give to her despite his hurt that she left. She feels bad she’s hurt him, that she hurts him. It’s not what she wants. Not like her parents, always trying to aim their barbs at a bull’s-eye. Nosson is a good man. It’s just… marriage is hard.
Or maybe it’s just her.
She sends another text. My favorite. I appreciate it.
There is no answering buzz. After checking 11 times, she gives up.
Daddy brings her home the biggest milkshake she’s ever seen for breakfast, and she immediately plans to sip it slowly throughout the day. Nursing has turned her ravenous, and the creamy sweetness makes her feel giddy. He’s bought himself a much more sensible size; they sit on the couch, laughing and comparing.
Ma walks in, sees them sitting there, milkshakes in hand, and for a split second, Mali sees the facade crack. Mrs. Sheiner’s eyebrows go up, her lips part, and then bam. The shutters slam back into place. “That’s what you buy a kimpeturin? She needs eggs, a bagel, protein. Not junk,” she says scathingly.
Mali lowers the shake, her hand trembling. She feels sluggish, slow, like she’s moving in slow motion.
Ma wanted Daddy to buy her a shake, she suddenly realizes. And she couldn’t ask or tell him. Her marriage, their marriage, was so broken, she couldn’t share with him that she would have liked a milkshake, too.
Mali thinks about this, heart pounding. And then her phone buzzes. Finally! It’s been 12 hours…
You’re welcome. Feel good.
Suddenly, she’s wide awake.
It’s there, right where she knew it would be. Tucked into the jacket pocket of her worn out copy of Shira’s Summer. She’d loved that book, the easy, happy, respectful relationship Shira had with her parents and Shira’s parents had with each other.
She remembers writing the letter. It was after she’d wandered down the hallway for a snack and had passed her mother’s room… only to freeze. Her mother was crying. Sobs, loud but muffled, as if they were trying to be suppressed. Later, when Ma was out at the store, Mali tiptoed into her parents’ room and inspected Ma’s pillow. There. Black mascara streaks all over one side.
She’d marched back to her room, pulled out a sheet of Lisa Frank stationary, and written a letter. She squints — postpartum eyesight — the pen has faded a bit and smudged, but she can read every word.
Dear Daddy and Ma,
Please get divorced.
I hate that you fight.
I hate that you cry.
I hate our house,
She smiles ruefully at little Mali’s way with words. She’d never delivered the letter, of course. Just kept it here for posterity…
And suddenly, she’s crying so hard she doesn’t think she’ll ever stop. She’s numb no longer.
Eventually baby Girl does her own crying, forcing Mali to take a deep, shuddering breath and pull herself somewhat together. She grabs a fresh spit-up cloth and mops her face with it. Looking down, she sees black mascara streaks against the pretty pink pinstripes.
Pulling the baby close, she ignores the pain from her stitches and breathes her in. That’s not going to be you, she thinks. You’re not going to write me and Nosson a letter. I refuse.
She lies in bed, gritting her teeth against the pain in her middle, and thinks about change. How much she’s always dreaded it and how she’s always done her best to achieve it. But mostly, she wonders if she wants things to change at all. She’s fine right now, breathing in this beautiful baby, comfortable here in Brooklyn, far away from that cramped basement. Far away from Nosson.
She thinks in circles, round and round, until the baby lets out a mournful cry. I’m going to make it better, sweetheart, she promises silently. I will.
She awakes, exhausted but filled with purpose, and sends her sheitel off to be washed. Ma deposits it back in her room, fresh and shining, Thursday afternoon.
“I’m making spare ribs for dinner. Is Nosson coming tonight or tomorrow?”
Mali looks at her phone. “I’m not sure. I think tonight.”
I hope tonight, she says silently. I really want my husband to be here with us, to see you and Daddy rip each other apart, to understand why I’m broken and have no idea how to communicate with a spouse. I want him to understand that it’s dysfunctional how you smother me with love when you can’t stand your life partner, but that’s it all I’ve ever known from you. I want him to see it, to be there with me, to understand.
She takes out her phone. Her hand shakes a bit.
Spare ribs for dinner. Do you think you’ll make it to Brooklyn tonight?
She wishes she could write “I hope you do,” but Rome wasn’t built in a day. Still, she wants to, and that’s also something.
The ping is instantaneous. I’ll be there.
And she can’t help the smile that spreads across her face.
She does her makeup, dons the sheitel, and changes into her most flattering outfit. It’s been awhile since she’s dressed up, since she’s put effort into how Nosson sees her, since she’s even thought about how he perceives her. It feels good.
She spies the black Camry from the window just as the sun begins to disappear behind the house across the street. She gazes at the car parked against the sunset and is hit with a tidal wave of déjà vu. She’d waited at this exact window for him to pick her up for dates. How young she’d been two years ago. How naive, so certain that if she could just find the perfect exit, it would lead to the perfect destination.
Dinner is stilted and awkward and delicious.
She tries to explain it all to Nosson later, as they sit on the porch with glasses of tea, Baby Girl fast asleep in the stroller.
“I shouldn’t have left you alone in Lakewood, Nosson. I’m sorry.” Deep breaths, keep going. She feels hot and itchy and her stitches hurt. “After we got married, I, uh, didn’t know I’d still need to build.”
His face is blank so she plows on. “After escaping those years, I thought it would be easy. It…wasn’t easy.”
Communicating. What she wants. What she likes. It’s hard for her. She’d never learned how.
“You’re amazing with gifts, Nosson, with treats, but that’s what I’ve always had. Which is probably why you thought that’s what I wanted. But I need something else. And when I wasn’t getting it, I gave up.”
It took too much effort, too much out of her, to tell him, to ask him. He gave her so much, and she couldn’t even give him her efforts.
Is it the moonlight or are those tears on her husband’s face?
“I’m going to learn,” she whispers. “For her.” She points her chin at the Doona.
“And for us.”
Nosson clears his throat noisily, but when he speaks, his voice is still hoarse. “So you’ll come back to Lakewood?”
Mali thinks of her mother doing her errands, her father buying her milkshakes and taking the baby at four a.m.
“Not yet. Please. I’m in too much pain still. But Nosson—”
His name sounds formal on her lips; she swallows. She knows what she needs to say next; she forces each word out. “Will you please stay here with me? I’d really like you to.”
Rome wasn’t built in a day. But the Berlin Wall tumbled down in one.
And she knows that with time, all the roads in their little world could be repaved. They would just require some long-awaited effort.
“Where do you see yourself in ten years?”
He gives a half-smile, eyebrows raised, opens his mouth, and then Baby Girl wakes up with a screech.
The screen door bangs open, and Mrs. Sheiner pokes her head out. “Mali? Should I take her?”
Mali doesn’t take her eyes off Nosson. “That’s okay, Ma, her Abba’s here now. We got this.”
(Originally featured in Family First, Issue 754)
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