| Calligraphy |

Behind Every Man

“You don’t even know what’s involved in all that. What it takes to make it happen. Because you’re never here,” she said

Shalva always thought it was weird that people wished the honorees mazel tov at a fundraising dinner. But it was even weirder to have people wishing her mazel tov.

“Thank you so much for coming,” Shalva said, trying to sound gracious. Layla was her neighbor, she had seven kids, and she had served them supper 45 minutes ago — Shalva knew this because Layla had sent four-year-old Moishy to borrow ketchup just as she was leaving. Shalva felt like apologizing for making her come out, but instead she just said, “It’s so nice that you came!”

“Of course,” Layla said, with an air-kiss. “Mazel tov!”

Shalva cringed.

Chevi laughed and nudged her. “Just relax,” she said. “They’re not honoring you, they’re honoring Mordy.”

“Yeah,” Shalva said.

“And he deserves it,” her mother said loyally.

“Yeah,” she said again. She guessed Mordy did deserve it — if not for him, there would be no Ohr Limud at all. He had started working with the boys as a para, straight out of kollel. And now, ten years later, look what he had built. Shalva glanced up at the large screens displaying the plans for the new Ohr Limud school building and resource center. What Mordy would build. If this dinner could raise enough money.

“Are you Mrs. Leitner?”

Shalva turned. The woman grasped her hand.

“I’m Dina Rubinoff, I’m so glad to meet you. Your husband is a tzaddik, mamash a tzaddik. He saved us… I always tell my husband, Rabbi Leitner has hatzlachah because he’s a mensch. He doesn’t just sit in an administrative ivory tower, he gets involved with the boys… He really cares…”

Shalva smiled and nodded.

“And he makes himself available at all hours… no matter how late it is…”

The smile tightened.

“Mazel tov, mazel tov.” Mrs. Rubinoff released her hand and bustled off.

Shalva’s phone buzzed.

It was Mordy. Can you meet me in the lobby?

That was weird. Wasn’t he busy shaking everyone’s hands and networking and whatever these dinners were for?


She reached the glass doors and looked around, he wasn’t there. After a minute she heard a low commotion and saw him coming. It was slow going; he had to stop and talk to everyone he passed. She watched him approach. It was true, what people said. Mordy was special. He talked to each person as if there weren’t 20 other people hovering nearby for their turn, and he knew how to say something meaningful to each one.

When he was about 15 feet away, he caught her eye and lifted his hand in a wave. The people around him caught the exchange and melted away.

“How are you?” he said, grinning down at her.

“Good,” she said. He was waiting, so she added, “It’s beautiful. So many people came.”

His smiled widened. “Yeah,” he said. “Baruch Hashem. Listen, can we talk outside for a minute?”

She followed him as he walked a bit down the block. The noise from the hall faded, and he stopped between two pools of orange light.

“I have something for you.” He reached into his jacket pocket and pulled out a long, rectangular box.

It was a tennis bracelet. Shalva gaped.

“I could never do any of this without you,” he said, flashing the signature Mordy Leitner smile.

She lifted the bracelet out of the box and closed the clasp around her wrist. Even in the orange light from the streetlights, it glowed. “Thank you,” Shalva said.

It was quiet for a minute, then Mordy said, “I guess I’d better go back inside.”

She nodded and they started walking.

“Ah, Reb Mordche,” said a man passing.

Another man approached. “Rabbi Leitner,” he nodded, reaching for Mordy’s hand.

They were almost at the entrance. “One minute.” Mordy turned to Shalva. “I’ll probably need to be here very late,” he told her in a low voice. “Can you get a ride home with your mother?”

Shalva nodded and slipped back into the hall.


  

Shalva’s mother was stopping by a wedding on her way home, and her sister Chevi was leaving with her husband — Shalva didn’t want to intrude. She hung around until the program was over, but she knew Mordy would be there for hours. When most of the women had left, Shalva drifted awkwardly toward the main entrance, where a gregarious woman she didn’t know offered her a ride. Shalva tried to be reticent without being downright impolite, but she did eventually have to admit to her name.

“You should be leaving in style!” the woman clucked. “Not alone!”

“It’s okay,” Shalva mumbled, watching the night flash past through the window. “I’m used to it.”

  

She heard him come in around 1 a.m. It took him a minute to realize that the kitchen light was still on, then he came into the room to find her. “Hi,” he said, sounding breathless.

It took her a moment to turn.

“Hi,” she said. He was glowing. She pasted on a smile. “How was it? Tell me everything.”

He did, about the crowd and the energy and the surprise appreciation gift from a group of Ohr Limud parents, and she smiled and nodded and hmmed as she washed out baby bottles and scraped the congealed lasagna from the pan (she had served supper in a rush and then no one had eaten it, “This is gross, Ma,”), and he talked about how much money they raised and what the rosh yeshivah had said.

“And listen to this,” he said, his voice rising with enthusiasm. “When I was leaving, Wexler came over to me — you know Wexler? I was in camp with his younger brother, he’s one of those real estate kings?”

Shalva nodded and smiled.

“He said we helped his brother-in-law a few months ago with his son — long story, but we basically made it possible for him to return to a mainstream class — you can’t imagine how happy they all were, especially the kid. And he wants to meet, says he heard about the new center we’re planning, and he thinks he can help make it happen.”

Shalva nodded and smiled again.

“Come on, you don’t think that’s amazing? The whole dinner was worth it just for this!”

“Amazing,” she said.

He caught sight of the clock. “Wow, it’s late.”

“Only a little later than usual,” Shalva said.

“I’m so tired,” he said. He collapsed into a chair and kicked off his shoes. “My feet are killing me. Wow.”

She rinsed the last bowl. There was no more room in the dish rack, so she propped it up against the side. It slid down and clattered against the counter. She propped it up again. This time it stayed.



“Everything okay?”

She didn’t look up. “Yeah.”

“Did your sisters come in the end?”

“Malky came for a few minutes, she couldn’t get a babysitter. Chevi came with Aryeh.”

“Did they enjoy?”

“It’s a dinner,” Shalva began, then caught herself. She began rinsing out the sink.

Mordy cleared his throat. “You know, Shalv,” he said. “I meant what I said before. And I said it on the video too. I couldn’t do all this without you.”

Shalva finally turned around. She leaned back against the counter and folded her arms. The tennis bracelet glinted on her wrist.

“You’re wrong,” she replied. “You definitely could ‘do all this’ without me.”

He opened his mouth.

“I don’t know the first thing about childhood development,” she went on. “I don’t know what learning modalities are or what IEP stands for, and I can’t even get my own kids to do their homework, forget about other people’s kids. So you don’t need to thank me. You ‘do it all’ without your wife. I have nothing to do with it.”


She continued like she hadn’t heard him. “You know what you could never do without your wife?” She didn’t unfold her arms, just tilted her head slightly to indicate the house around them. “This. A clean house. A hot meal.” She left the kitchen, and he followed her down the hallway to the kids’ rooms. She flung open the door. “Angelic children, sleeping after a full day of getting to school on time, coming home, eating supper, doing homework, baths, bedtime, everything.”


“You don’t even know what’s involved in all that. What it takes to make it happen. Because you’re never here,” she said.


“I don’t blame you,” she continued. “Your work is fun. You’re good at it. You meet with interesting people. You’re in control of your own schedule. You get that high that comes from making a difference. And there’s all the stuff you do to create the whole Ohr Limud infrastructure. You get the thrill of the chase. Closing the deal. You have your buddies to chill with and celebrate. You have a nice modern office with a staff that answers the phone and prints your papers and cleans your office so often that you don’t even know what a mess looks like. You have meetings all times of day and night where you make big decisions that feel important, and desperate parents call and thank you for saving their life. And here,” she tipped her head again, “all we have is a house that gets messy, kids that don’t cooperate, and all kinds of things that never get tied up neatly and have to be done again and again every day.”

Mordy drew a deep breath and let it out slowly. “You feel frustrated and overwhelmed,” he said.

“Don’t try that on me,” Shalva snapped. “I’m not your client.”

“Whoa.” His face changed, and it was quiet for a minute.

“You’re probably very tired,” he finally said. “Let’s talk more tomorrow, okay?”

  

Mordy came home early the next day — 7:30 p.m. He walked in the door just as she was loading the dishwasher. “Oh!” Shalva said, shocked. “I didn’t know you were coming home. I just put all the food in the fridge.” She moved toward the fridge, throwing a reluctant glance at the table she’d just cleared, but he waved her away.

“Leave it,” he said. “Let’s go out to eat.”

She stared at him. “Now? I mean—” She glanced down at the black skirt she was wearing, it was covered in yogurt. “I — we need a babysitter.”

“Aha.” That stumped him. “Could you get one?”

“Sure, it should only take 400 calls, and they’ll be available a week from Wednesday.”

“Let’s get takeout,” he suggested. “We’ll eat together after the kids are sleeping. It will be nice for you, a meal you didn’t have to cook.”

She refrained from pointing out that she had already cooked a meal. He was trying.

When the house was finally quiet and Glatt Geshmak had delivered Mordy’s schnitzel-pastrami sandwich and Shalva’s steak salad, Shalva set the table with the plastic silverware and little packets of ketchup and mustard and filched a bottle of Coke from the Shabbos stash. They ate in silence for a minute, talking only about the food, and then Mordy spoke up.

“We need to talk,” he said.

Shalva took a deep breath. “About last night—”

Something flickered across his face. “Don’t worry about it. It happens.”

“It — what?”

“It’s fine.” He leaned back and looked across at her. “It was an intense day. I get it. Don’t worry about it.”

“But I—” Shalva paused.

“I was thinking you could get more cleaning help.”

She stared at him.

“And maybe a babysitter on Sunday afternoons or something, so you can get the errands done without the kids.”

Shalva took a deep breath. “I do not,” she said, trying to keep her voice steady, “need a cleaning lady. Or a babysitter.” She owed it to him to try to explain. “I need a husband. You.”

“You want me to do the cleaning? And the errands?”

“No!” Shalva exploded. “I don’t want you to do the cleaning or the errands. I don’t want you to do anything. Just to come home at a normal time like a normal person! Be part of the family! You know what I mean?”

Mordy’s phone buzzed. He slipped it out of his pocket, glanced at it, and put it back.

“Listen,” Mordy said. “This is a longer conversation; we need to talk about it another time. But what I wanted to discuss with you was the Wexler thing.”

“The. Wexler. Thing,” she repeated.

“He wants me to fly out to Texas for a few days. He has headquarters there, with his finance people. I’d need to meet with his guy, Rosenfeld, he’s a managing partner or something, he would need to sign off on the deal. But it should just be a formality. Wexler thinks he can make it happen. He said—” here Mordy actually colored — “that he invests in the person, not in the plan.” When she didn’t reply he said, “Imagine, we can wrap this whole thing up by the end of the week.”

“The end of the week?”

“Yeah,” he said. “It’s Monday today, right? Wexler said tomorrow night would work. I booked a flight for early tomorrow. I’ll be back Thursday morning.”

  

On Tuesday morning, Shalva was up with the baby when Mordy’s alarm rang at 5:30 a.m. He moved quietly, trying not to wake up anyone else, and gave her a silent wave as he slipped out of the house with his small suitcase.

The baby never went back to sleep, and the day passed in the usual blur of work, housework, and childcare. When Mordy texted her that he had landed, she sent back an emoji in reply. With no one to wait up for, Shalva fell asleep while putting the kids to bed, forgetting to call and wish him luck.

  

When Mordy called at seven a.m., Shalva was in crisis. The baby wouldn’t stop screaming, Moshe was refusing to get out of bed. There was no milk for coffee. Or cereal.

She ignored the call.

“I’m not going to school,” Dovi announced. He stomped to the table. “There’s no milk?! I’m gonna starve!”

Shalva tried to put the baby down; he clutched her and screamed. “Let’s just—”

Moshe barreled downstairs in a panic. “Where’s my white shirt? I need it!”

By the time Shalva opened the front door to shepherd them out, the bus was at the corner. “RUN!”

Moshe ran. Dovi dragged his feet. The baby screamed.

Her phone vibrated — Mordy again.

Shalva swiped right. “Hello,” she said, in a monotone.



“Hi, it’s Mordy.”

“Hi,” she said, irritated. She knew who it was.

“How’s it going?”

Shalva surveyed the morning debris. “Fine,” she said curtly.

Mordy waited.

“How’s it going by you?” she asked finally.

“Baruch Hashem,” he said.

“How was the big meeting last night?”

“The meeting,” he repeated.

“Yes,” Shalva said. “The meeting. The big meeting with Wexler where he was going to donate a building. And Rosenfeld flew in too, for this historic event. And you were going to secure a bazillion dollars to fund your Ohr Limud programs for the next ten years and save the world.”

Mordy said, “It didn’t… work out.”

Shalva stopped moving. “What happened?”

“Wexler… asked for a lot of data. Numbers, projections, things like that.”

“Okay,” Shalva said.

“I gave him what we had but… he didn’t… like it.”


“He accused me of misrepresenting the organization. He and Rosenfeld basically walked out on me.”

“What? What does that even mean?”

“It means that we’re not getting a building from them. We’re not getting anything from them.”

“I — I don’t know what to say.”

He didn’t reply.

“Are you alone? Yes,” she answered herself. “When is your flight?”

“Tonight. Midnight.”

“Can you get an earlier flight?”

“No. I tried.” He released the words one at a time, a stuttering salvo. “Earliest flight.”

“What are you going to do there for the whole day?”

“I’ll be okay.”

He didn’t sound okay. “Maybe you can—”

“I’ll be okay,” he interrupted her. “I need to go, okay?”

“Okay,” she said, but he’d already hung up.

  

It took Shalva until 10 a.m. to make arrangements for the kids. Malky said she could take the baby and Chevi said she could meet both buses. She would keep the kids for the afternoon and then drive them to Shalva’s mother to sleep. Shalva told her boss she had a family emergency and threw a few things into a small carry-on. She took an Uber to the airport so she could leave Chevi her car. There weren’t too many hotels in Duncanville, Texas — just a Motel 6 and a Hilton Garden Inn. Shalva figured he was at the Hilton. She could take an Uber when she landed, too.

  

When she walked into the hotel, she was surprised to find herself sweating. This was the right thing, she knew it was. What was she nervous about?

The concierge was dressed like an FBI agent, with the discreet earbud and his hands in front. He wouldn’t give her the room number. “Can I call the guest for you, ma’am?” he said politely. His graying hair was brushed up and back and his name tag read “Matthew.”

“No, don’t do that,” she said quickly. “I’ll call him myself.” She walked away, toward the elevators, trying to figure this out. There was a little alcove with a couch, just out of sight of the desk. She walked around the couch, leaned against the wall, and pulled out her phone. What was she going to say? She closed her eyes, picturing herself knocking on the door. Mordy would open it, he would be shocked to see her. His right eyebrow would sink lower than the left one, like it always did when he was confused. And she would smile and say—

The elevator doors opened and Mordy walked out.

“Mordy!” she called — a strangled syllable.

He didn’t hear her. He walked across the lobby, past the concierge, heading to the glass doors.

Shalva panicked. Once he was outside, she’d never find him. “Mordy!” she called again. Disregarding Matthew, she ran across the lobby. His hand was on the door when he turned.

She stopped running. “Mordy,” she gasped between breaths. She was acutely aware of how red her face was and what the flight had done to her sheitel.

“What in the world are you doing here?”

“I—” People were staring. “Can we go somewhere to talk?”

Without taking his eyes off her, he pulled the door open and stepped back for her to walk through. Shalva glanced over her shoulder. Matthew was staring at her through narrowed eyes, talking urgently into a phone.

“What are you doing here?” Mordy said again. He was walking quickly.

“Where are we going?” she asked, struggling to keep up.

“I have no idea,” he retorted. “I thought I was going to Minchah. Where were you going?”

To Minchah! The stress of the last eight hours caught up with her, and she giggled like a schoolgirl. “I thought I was going up to your room,” she started. “But that Matthew guy…” She was laughing, losing it. “He thinks I’m a criminal.”

“He thinks he’s a superhero spy,” Mordy countered. He was laughing now also. “Every time I walk past he takes out his phone, like he’s logging every move.”

She wiped the tears from her face. “Ah,” she gasped. “That felt good. I needed that.”

He looked at her. “How did you even get here? You flew? You must be exhausted. Let’s find somewhere to sit.” He glanced up and down the street. “There’s a Starbucks, should we go there? Do you want me to get a car?”

“Let’s walk,” Shalva said. She felt suddenly shy.

It took them a minute to navigate the intersection. When the noise of the traffic had faded further down the block, Mordy repeated, “What are you doing here?”

Shalva took a deep breath. “Wexler,” she started.


“You were so excited,” she said. “It was going to be your crowning achievement.”

He made a sudden motion that she couldn’t interpret, but then he relaxed. “Yeah,” he said again.

“When you called you sounded terrible,” she said honestly. She snuck a peek at him. He did look terrible, his eyes were exhausted, and there were little lines at the corner of his lips, like an old man. Like it took too much energy to even look alive.

“You sounded totally drained. Like you had nothing left. And I just thought…” The Starbucks came into view, and she slowed her pace, not wanting to lose the moment. “I just thought, what a terrible time to be alone.”

There was a crease between his eyebrows. “I don’t understand,” he said. “I have a flight tonight. I told you that.”

She shook her head. “That’s 36 hours alone. After such a…” She didn’t want to say embarrassment. “Disappointment.”

They had reached the store, and he stopped walking. “You came here just to wait with me?”

She nodded. Did he think she was crazy? For the first time since the phone call, she doubted herself.

Mordy walked up to the tinted glass door and motioned her inside. All the adrenaline drained away, and she was suddenly exhausted. She slid into the first available seat. Her hands were shaking.


She nodded.

He went up to the counter to order. When he returned with the coffee he said, “You’re probably tired.”

She nodded again.

“We can go back to the hotel to rest for a couple hours before we have to leave to the airport. Or we can go find something to eat. But a restaurant will be at least a half hour drive. Maybe more. I still need to daven. If we go out for dinner, we won’t have much time to relax.”

“What do you want to do?”

“What do you want to do?”

Shalva considered this. “I don’t know.”

“You don’t know what you want to do?”

The tension of the past four days had eaten away at her restraint. “When does what I want ever factor into the equation? It’s always about what I have to do — what the kids need — what has to happen next, and next, and next, so the whole house of cards doesn’t collapse.”

He was staring at her. “That doesn’t sound like a very happy life.”

Her eyes burned suddenly, and she looked away.

“Why didn’t you ever tell me this?”

She flared. “It’s not the kind of thing that’s easy to say. When you walk in the door at 11 p.m., and you’re tired and I’m tired, I can’t just say, ‘Hi, how was your day, by the way I have this thing I’ve been thinking about that’s really important to me but it’s hard for me to share.’ ” She reached for the coffee. “You have to be there.”

“Like you’re here.”


They sat quietly for a minute.

“I think I’d rather sit here a little longer,” she said finally, “even if it means we can’t go out for supper. Is that okay with you? Maybe we can pick up some food from that grocery we passed before. What have you been eating since you got here, anyway?”

He laughed, and she could see he was relaxing. “My wife packed me some goodies,” he said, straight-faced. “It was great until I lost my appetite.”

She laughed too. “It will come back,” she said loyally. “You’ll be fine. This will pass. Wexler was just a… glitch. It happens. But you’ll have other opportunities.”

“You think so?”

The question surprised her. “Of course!” She looked up, and the look in his eyes was so raw, she had to look away. “Of course,” she insisted, louder. “One day you’ll build a building, and we’ll go out to celebrate, and I’ll say, ‘remember that Starbucks in Texas?’ And you’ll say yeah, and I’ll say, I was right.”

He laughed, so she knew it was safe to look up again. He loosened his tie and leaned back. “Yeah,” he said. The enthusiasm was gathering in his voice, and he was starting to look like his usual self. “We’ll get there. Maybe not this year, but eventually. Even without Wexler — there are other ways. The dinner was pretty successful, and we can launch a matching campaign or something. It won’t be this miracle building, but we can do it. We got this far.

“Yeah,” he said again, like he was promising himself, “we’ll get there.” He leaned his head back and closed his eyes. “I’m exhausted,” he said. Then he opened his eyes. “You know,” he said frankly, looking directly at her, “If not for you, I could never do all this.” 

(Originally featured in Calligraphy, Issue 830)

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