| Family Tempo |

Dreams Undone    

Could she get married while her life was unraveling?

Aryeh’s a dreamer.

He has starry eyes and a wide smile when he talks about the future. It’s not that Malka doesn’t appreciate it. She’s just more practical.

“It’s only apartment listings,” Malka pointed out. “We don’t need to call together. I can do it during my lunch break. It’s like, so not a big deal.”

“Okay.” Aryeh opened the tab to the spreadsheet of the top four apartments they were interested in.

“Then I guess if you take care of that, I’ll take care of setting up an appointment for a marriage license. Just make sure to call the Ledermans first. I know it’s a one-bedroom basement, but they have this nice backyard, which is rare in Queens. It’s really spacious, enough room for the kids to run out back.” He winked.

That’s so like Aryeh. A one-bedroom? Where did he think “the kids” were fitting in, the kitchen drawers? With anyone else, Malka would roll her eyes like a Ferris wheel, halting at the top for a dramatic obvious second. Instead, Malka pictured it. Leaning back into those reclining zero gravity chairs, watching the sun dip as Aryeh joined outside… He would be flipping his spatula, catching a burger midair and rubbing the grease from the grill right on the stitching of some apron with a punny quote. Malka saw herself sliding her chair back and covering herself and the newborn bundle in her arms with a geometric throw blanket. The sunsets may be blocked by tall buildings in Ledermans’ backyard, but in this vision, she and Aryeh owned the sky.

What could she say? Aryeh made her dream.

During lunch the next day Malka found an empty room (no need for everyone in the teachers' room to know her business) and whipped out her phone.

She paced back and forth as she waited for the Ledermans to answer. Twirling a loose strand of hair, Malka sighed. With all the curly hair treatments, it felt like twine; she was counting down the seconds for a sheitel to cover it.

“Hello, who’s calling?” The voice on the other end sounded the senior schmoozy type. Reassuring in a prospective landlord? Maybe.

“Hey, my name is Malka. I’m calling about your apartment listing. My chassan and I saw it on an email thread and might be interested.”

“Oh, you’re calling about the apartment we listed. Hold on a sec, I think you might be a little too late. My husband just signed with someone starting next month. Moish!” Mrs. Lederman called out, making Malka’s ears ring. “Did you end up signing with that guy? That computer programmer? Gedalyah Stern, for the apartment?” A beat, and then Mrs. Lederman came back on the line, speaking at a more normal pitch. “I’m sorry, dear. The apartment’s taken.”

Malka readjusted the phone to her ear, unsure she heard correctly.

“Did you say Gedalyah Stern? That makes no sense,” she stammered, shooing away two giggling fifth graders who thought the room vacant. “My father is Gedalyah Stern.”

“How sweet! Maybe he’s planning on surprising you?”

“It’s possible, but how would he know, we never—” A sudden clarity seized her.

This was a surprise, but not one her father had planned. Her breath froze and felt like icicles tearing through her chest. She closed her eyes as the room sped around her.

After a moment, Malka realized her hands were still clutching her phone, a little too tightly.

“Thank you, Mrs. Lederman. I’ll call you back after I speak to my father.”

Except she wouldn’t be calling Mrs. Lederman back, she knew. She had already figured it out.

After last week, she should have seen it coming, Malka thought as she collapsed onto a stray metal folding chair.

There were warning bells, a conversation that now made sense, even if it didn’t. It was on a Wednesday, she knew, because it was after an afternoon date with Aryeh in which the IKEA they’d driven to was ironically closed for construction.

Aryeh had dropped her off earlier than expected, and Malka hadn’t thought anyone would be home at 3:30 p.m. Both her parents would have been at work, Orly at college, and the twins in school. She went upstairs and dumped her beige crossbody on her bed, tossing her shoes by its post. Aryeh had taken her out for sushi after they turned away from Ikea, but her stomach still rumbled because, frankly, one roll wasn’t filling, and two rolls were an after “I do” order.

Malka had gone to the kitchen, where she found two yogurts and a half ‘n half Snapple bottle in the fridge. Score. And her mother wasn’t around to chide her for bringing food upstairs. Was it different when you owned your own house? I guess these are things you find out soon enough, Malka had laughed to herself.

She’d just hit the landing, she recalled, when she heard a door swing open upstairs. At first, Malka had panicked — was there an intruder in the house? She was about to call out when she heard her mother let out a suppressed sob.

Malka had frozen, and she felt the same uncertainty now, recalling the scene. What would have gone differently had she let her mother know she was there?

It was the crying. Her mother didn’t have an easy time of it, Malka knew, but she’d never cried in front of her children, and Malka hadn’t wanted her to be humiliated in that way. She’d slunk back down and into the kitchen, about to call out, when she heard her mother on the phone.

“Hi, Aliza,” her mother had said, walking down the steps and into the den. Her mother’s voice was wobbly, Malka noted, and she’d stayed where she was, frozen next to the counter. She’d been afraid to move to the table to eat her yogurt, compelled by a stronger force to hear what mother was about to tell her sister.

“We just got off with the lawyer, finally,” her mother had said. “So it’s just until Malka’s wedding, and then it’s over.”

From the corner of her eye, Malka had seen her mother reach for a throw pillow, stroking the surface as she listened.

“No,” her mother said. “We’re going to focus on the wedding and getting Malka settled now. We’ll come back to all this and finalize the divorce afterward.” Her mother had gestured as though “all this” were at arm’s length, as if it was small and something that could be scooped up in one hand, but her cracking voice belied her. Something that was too heavy  a burden to be caught or carried even if Malka offered up her own hands.

As her mother lay down on the couch, hugging the pillow and closing her eyes, Malka had tiptoed back into her room, shut the door, and flown onto her bed, her mother’s words floating in the air, until she’d shoved them somewhere deep, deep, deep. She’d refused to think about the implications of the conversation, pushed them out of her mind that night, and the next morning. She’d entertained the brief thought of turning to Orly to try to make sense of things, she recalled now, twisting her hair around her finger, but had decided against it. Talking about it would have made it real. And maybe she’d misheard, or misinterpreted.

The bell for the next period shook Malka back into the present. She hadn’t misheard or misinterpreted, she knew that now. If her father was taking the Ledermans’ basement….

She shivered as a blur of teachers and students ran to make their next class. She went to hers, though she could never afterward explain how she got through it; she’d never taught on autopilot before.

Malka walked out of Bnos Blima and leaned against the red brick, pulling up the collar of her peacoat.

The Ledermans… the apartment… her mother’s conversation…. Everything was falling apart. Malka’s teeth chattered, but her face was burning. Her eyes blurred from the wind, and she could barely make out the security guard who opened the gate for Orly, pulling up in front of the building.

It was kind of Orly to use the break she had between classes to pick Malka up, but Malka knew her sister didn’t think twice about it. These things came so naturally for her. Malka was 24 yet she felt like she could learn so much from her 19-year-old sister.

“Isn’t Aryeh supposed to be picking you up?” Orly asked as Malka buckled herself in.

Malka blinked. “I canceled. I’m not really feeling so well,” she half-truthed.

“Whatever you have, don’t give it to me. I have a wedding to attend in a few weeks.”

Malka met her sister’s gaze. Does she know? Should I tell her? Would remaining quiet breach their inseparable bond?

For a long stretch of time, it had always been Malka and Orly.

Then Michoel and Eli were born, and at first, the age gap felt like an uncrossable chasm. At 11 now, the twins were starting to be less of a babysitting pain and more of a fun dynamic duo who would occasionally come home in a cast or with an implausible but true story of why their teacher was led out of school in handcuffs. Malka’s mother would roll her eyes while her father would laugh uproariously. It was just another one of their many differences.

“You okay?” Orly stopped for the light, pushed her sunglasses out of her eyes and appraised her sister.

Malka stared back looking for signs, hints of worry, details of despair. Orly yawned. Oh, my dear sister, you really are clueless. Her heart squeezed. Orly was good, so good, and Malka wished she could protect her. Orly had been genuinely happy for Malka when she got engaged, though both sisters knew the moment was bittersweet.

Now Malka sent up a silent prayer that her sister wouldn’t be alone for long, Orly had just begun dating, and with her good looks and middos, she was a trophy in the shidduchim game; anyone who married her would walk away with first prize.

But what would happen to Orly’s prospects once the divorce was finalized? Malka thought with a start. Once their father moved out?

Her hand went automatically to her hair, as she opened her mouth and closed it again. She had to say something or the betrayal would grow and shift into Malka’s own version of Eli and His Little White Lie. She wanted to shake Orly by the shoulders. Daddy rented an apartment, Orly. He’s leaving! Our lives are going to be completely upended. Nothing will ever be the same!

But she bit her tongue. Orly seemed so relaxed as she turned the corner and pulled up in front of the house. Focused on Malka and her ills, unaware of the merciless countdown that ticked toward the demise of their parents’ marriage.

Malka didn’t wait for Orly to leave the car. She rushed upstairs and curled up on her bed. Call Aryeh. He’ll help make sense of this. It was a good sign, Malka knew, that her thoughts turned toward him instead of her best friend, but she also knew she couldn’t.

Aryeh loved her parents. The other day, after he’d come for dinner, he’d talked about how great they were. “They make me feel so comfortable. And your dad is so good at Scrabble, do you think he let me win?” he’d said. “You have such a solid family.”

Would he understand, considering his background? His parents had lived in an RV for much of his childhood.

It bothered Malka every time Aryeh emphasized how normal her family was. They weren’t, she knew. She’d been to friends’ homes, had seen how their parents got along, while her parents were barely home together. And that was good. Neither brought out the best in the other. It often felt like Shabbos seudos were the worst; they were forced to sit together while they found fault with everything the other did. Malka and Orly often tried to compensate by keeping the attention on themselves. It was always easier when her father was on a business trip.

“Happy dysfunctional,” Malka told Aryeh, who would have none of it.

“Just happy,” he pressed. “I mean, look at the twins. Your parents just let them be who they are. You can tell they love their kids. They’re so normal, your family is doing something right.”

It wasn’t as much as what he said as the way he said it. Normal as in the highest-ranking compliment lifted from the frum glossary. Normal, like the word was an entry ticket into the world of societal acceptance.

This was not normal.

Malka rolled to the side and bit down on her fingernails. What was she missing? Were such drastic measures necessary? And why now? How could Aryeh understand? He was too full of life.

He’d probably still agree to marry her, but he’d resent it. He didn’t sign up for divorced in-laws. Too messy. Too abnormal.

And — Malka bit hard, cutting off more of her nail than she’d meant to — if her parents couldn’t hold on to a 20-year marriage, if they were calling it quits, what made her think she’d be able to? Her hands were smaller, less calloused. Her grip on life stemmed from limited experience. What if she and Aryeh also proved incompatible? And… what if it took them 20 plus years to realize that? What if it wasn’t just her parents; what if Malka also was made to shatter?

This wasn’t what Aryeh wanted.

We’re going to focus on the wedding and getting Malka settled now. We’ll come back to all this and finalize the divorce afterward.

So it was up to Malka to keep the family together. The weight of this responsibility surged through Malka’s shoulders, clawing at her tear ducts.

For the first time since she’d overheard her mother’s conversation, she allowed herself to cry.

Ohhh. Orly picked up a Swarovski crystal tiara and placed it on her head. “I know we’re here for you, but I look so good in this.”

Malka nodded, barely looking. The tiaras were kept in the alteration room, and Orly was plucking them off the shelves and curtseying in front of the three-panel mirror.

“You’ll get your turn.” Her mother reached for a crown and then a bejeweled clip examining the two together.

“Ah, Meira Stern, is Malka ready to try on her gown?” Bethany, the alterations lady, gave a megawatt smile through the three pins sticking out of her mouth. She pulled a gown from the rack, unzipped the bag, and handed it to Malka.

The fabric relaxed in her hands as though it recognized its owner. Malka entered the gown and stood on the platform before the paneled mirror.

“What do you think?” Bethany pulled off two flyaway pieces of fabric and positioned Malka so she could see the dress from all angles.

With its high collar and intricate beading, it was the gown of Malka’s dreams. She held the part of her waist where the beading stopped, and the ballgown began. She fingered the high neckline delicately, wanting to be lost in every detail. Would she ever wear it?

“It’s breathtaking,” Malka’s mother answered from behind, her voice cracking. She held the headpieces close to her chest and pulled tissues out of her coat pocket.

“Oh, honey, this isn’t my first rodeo.” Bethany handed her mother a box of tissues from a wooden shelf.

“Me, too.” Orly was wiping dislodged tears with the back of her sleeve.

Soon, the two of them were dancing in front of Malka, holding out their hands for her to join.

Malka looked at her mother and her sister, so moved by her beauty and elegant innocence. But she wasn’t innocent. She knew too much, knew about the defiant decisions that were woven into the very fabric of her dress. She stayed where she was on the platform and the dance died awkwardly.

Her mother took to examining the tiara and the clip. She finally put the tiara on her daughter’s head.

“I don’t think minimalist is the way to go when you look like Kate Middleton.” She grabbed Malka’s shoulders. “Look at you, you are so radiant.”

Malka’s shoulders shook involuntarily. Her mother had once stood in a gown by a mirror. She, too, had once reflected beauty and dreams, dreams that were more precious than all the jewels and beading and diamonds. Malka’s eyes followed her mother, who threw crumpled tissues into the garbage. When did her marriage cheapen? Be something she could throw away?

“Is something wrong?” Orly asked.

Malka’s mouth was trembling, and her eyes were welling into blackened pools. She felt frail and unsupported.

“She’s just so happy.” Her mother reached for another tissue, dabbed at her eyes and turned to Bethany. The two ladies went into the back to discuss further details, and dusky silence fell over the room.

Malka pulled off the gown robotically. Orly watched with earnest confusion.

“Do you not like the dress?”

Malka was about to say something, when her phone rang to the tune of “Od Yishama.” Shoot. She hit her forehead. She and Aryeh had been scheduled to get their marriage license now. She’d written it down on her calendar with an (admittedly) embarrassing number of heart doodles around it. Yet when Bethany had asked them to reschedule the gown fitting, she’d told her mother it was fine. Malka checked her watch. As of now, they were 20 minutes late for the appointment.

“Aren’t you going to get that?” Orly asked as the phone continued to ring.

Malka looked at her sister and shrugged. “Not right now.”

She pushed the curtains back and dashed out before Orly had a chance to say anything.

On the ride back, Malka’s phone rang twice more. Nobody said a word as each call went straight to voicemail.

“Can I come in?” Malka’s mother knocked on her door.

Malka called an assent, then bent over her pillow and played with the frayed edges as her mother entered, made space for herself, and sat down on the bed.

“Ignoring Aryeh’s calls, Malka? Is everything okay?”

Malka flinched when her mother spoke, but her eyes remained on her pillow. “I must not have seen his calls,” she responded weakly.

“Nice try, hon, but we all heard it. What’s going on? Is something wrong with you and Aryeh?”

Malka shrugged.

“Did he do something? Say something?” Her mother’s tone was concerned, bordering on desperate.

Still Malka said nothing, and a couple of minutes passed in silence. Finally, her mother pulled Malka’s phone off the night table where it was charging and handed it to Malka. “If not to me, then call the shadchan. I’m worried about you, Malka.”

Her mother left the room and almost knocked Orly to the ground.

“I didn’t hear anything!” Orly insisted and turned away as the door closed.

Malka sprinted to the front door, hoping to make it out before anyone saw her.

Aryeh had accepted her excuses for the missed appointment, had laughed with her at her excitement about trying on her gown, and suggested dinner the next night. He’d just texted that he would be there in two, and a part of her was excited to see him, but another part just wanted to be tucked in bed, away from everybody.

“Malka,” she heard her mother call from the kitchen, “come here.”

Without a choice, Malka entered the kitchen where her mother was cutting a salad for the family.

Her mother looked up from the cucumbers; her lips formed a thin line. “Malka, you look nice but—”

“But what?” Malka realized her voice was teetering on the defensive. She cleared her throat.

“But what,” she tried again.

“Aren’t you going to put a little makeup on? Aryeh’s taking you to a nice restaurant, no?”

Malka shrugged. She looked fine. So it wasn’t a full face; she wouldn’t wear a full face every day of her life, he might as well get used to it.

“I think you need to go back up—” her mother began, but there was a knock at the door.

“That’s Aryeh,” she said hurriedly and ran to get the door before her mother could reach it first, giving Malka time to put on makeup.

With anybody else, the car ride home would be silent.

But Malka wasn’t engaged to anybody. After an awkward dinner, in which Malka had picked at her food, said little, and finally feigned a headache, Aryeh was driving her home, telling her about the latest apartment he’d investigated.

“They want us to come back next week.”

“Okay,” Malka said absently, pushing away the conversation like it was a plate of week-old cholent.

“And I rescheduled our appointment at the City Clerk. We can go together on Monday.”

“Okay.” Malka fiddled with her engagement ring, turning the diamond around.

Aryeh parked in front of her house and grabbed a plastic bag from the backseat.

“Here’s your leftovers, still warm.”

“Thank you.”



“Is everything okay?” Aryeh’s typically poised features vanished as his eyes traced his future kallah, trying to find reason.

“Please, don’t ask me,” she whispered.

“No, that’s not right. You’ve been acting strange, and it’s painful to see you like this. You can’t keep things from me, Malka, your secrets are my secrets.”

When she said nothing, he continued, “I need to know what’s wrong.”

“It’s not you,” Malka barely whispered, but Aryeh heard. His ears always perked up when Malka had something to say.

“So what’s wrong?”

“Please, not now,” Malka finally managed, and she yanked the door open and stumbled out.

When Mrs. Amster called, Malka braced herself like the phone was going to spring a jack-in-the-box punching glove once she hit the accept key.

“I’m going to just cut right to the chase, Malka.” Mrs. Amster was known for doing that. Her blunt nature made her both an adept shadchan and an intimidating personality.

“Aryeh is concerned that you want to call off the engagement.”

Malka felt dizzy. She sat down and waited for her hands to stop shaking. “Is he… is he mad at me?” She thought about their disastrous date at the restaurant, and how she’d cried out of the apartment hunt.

“He’s confused. He told me you’ve skipped out on dates, missed crucial appointments, even when you are together you seem distant and disinterested. These are red flags. I’m not trying to be harsh here, Malka, but marriage is a big step, and if you’re not ready then it’s not fair to drag this poor boy along. Rather end it now than when the consequences to your actions are much bigger than you.”

Bigger than you. Malka thought of the imminent end of her parents’ marriage, and its effects on her, Orly, and the twins. “I’m not… I do. I do want to get married to Aryeh Blau. It’s just—”

“Malka, is there something else going on?” Mrs. Amster softened.

“There is… something.” Malka felt her lips quiver. The sudden idea of losing Aryeh punctured a hemispheric hole in her chest, slicing her in half. He was right to worry, what with missed dates and the marriage license appointment, even showing up at the restaurant with no makeup. But she needed an anchor.

“Malka?” Mrs. Amster voice cut through her thoughts. “My phone is dying, oh no. This battery never lasts. I’ll call you in a—”

Malka clicked her phone off after the line went dead and went across the hall to Orly’s room.

Orly looked up from her laptop and shoved a textbook on fundamental OT to the side. “I was waiting for you to come talk to me.”

Malka sat down on her sister’s bed.

“Do you not want to marry Aryeh?” Orly asked. “He’s such a nice guy. He treats you like a queen. Am I missing something?” Orly’s face was streaked in worry. “I know something is up between you two, you’ve been acting very strange lately.”

“It’s…. you don’t want to know, Orly. It could ruin us.”

Orly closed her laptop. “We’ll if that’s the case, don’t I have a right to know?”

Malka nodded, tears springing into her eyes. She took a deep breath, then blurted, “Mommy and Daddy are getting divorced after my wedding.”

Orly’s jaw went slack. “Who told you?”

Malka shifted. “I heard Mommy talking, and then I found out that Daddy is renting an apartment we were interested in.”

Orly was quiet for a while. Finally, she spoke. “I know. I also overheard something, and I asked Mommy about it.”

“Why didn’t you—” Malka started, but Orly interrupted.

“For the same reason Mommy and Daddy haven’t said anything, Malka. For the same reason they’re waiting. Nobody wants you to fixate on the divorce during this time before your wedding.”

Malka felt burning holes scorch her body with every word.

“I’m happy you said something,” Orly continued. “I figured something was up when you tried on your gown. Those weren’t tears of happiness. You looked terrified.”

“How can they do this to our family? They always worked through their differences. Why now? Why is my marriage the deciding factor?” Malka whimpered. “And why are you so chill about this? Aren’t you scared, Orly? This is a big deal. And it’ll affect your… future.”

“I am scared. But I’ve had time to digest it. And I’ve been in touch with Rebbetzin Rudderman. She gave me so much clarity. Mostly about how my parents’ divorce is not a glimpse into my own future. And that I shouldn’t be worried about shidduchim, the right one will see that I have plenty of role models and a healthy outlook.”

Malka nodded. “But—”

“I told Rebbetzin Rudderman about you and Aryeh. I look at what you have, and I want that for myself. You’re better people together. Not like Mommy and Daddy.”

“All he’s talked about is how excited he is to marry into a ‘nice, normal’ family. He’s going to resent me.”

“You know he won’t.”

“And what if we make the same mistakes they make?”

“Call Rebbetzin Rudderman, Malka. I’m telling you, she’ll change your life. She’s so brilliant and focused.”

“Orly,” Malka said slowly, twisting her ring around, hiding the diamond, “do you think — do you think they would stay together if I called off my engagement to Aryeh? They’re waiting for me to be settled, I heard Mommy tell that to Auntie Aliza, and—”

“Does it matter?” Orly retorted, taking Malka’s hand and twisting her ring so the diamond faced upward again. “You’re going to sacrifice a marriage of ahavah and shalom for more years of prolonged machlokes? Call Rebbetzin Rudderman. Here’s her number.”

“Okay, that was impressive,” Malka said, watching Aryeh straighten out the wheels and complete his parallel park.

“I know.” Aryeh winked. “And we still have fifteen minutes to spare.”

Malka nestled into the car upholstery. She felt at peace. Orly was right, Rebbetzin Rudderman was a gold mine, and she’d sounded genuinely happy to speak with Malka. They had another meeting set for next week.

“Listen, Aryeh. I know this is big change. My parents’ divorce is not a small challenge, and it’ll affect you.”

“It was a bit of a shock when Mrs. Amster let me know, I’ll be honest.”

Having it go through Mrs. Amster had been Rebbetzin Rudderman’s idea. “You don’t have to be the one to tell him,” she’d said. “Let him have some time to process it before you see him and talk it out.”

“Yes,” Malka said now. “This isn’t a normal situation.” She caught herself lingering on the word normal. Aryeh cleared his throat.

“It’s not exactly what I envisioned, and it’s going to take some time getting used to, for both of us. But we’ll get through this, Malka, together. I mean my parents lived in an RV most of their lives. If anyone’s judging anyone’s parents….”

Malka laughed through cascading tears. “I love your parents.”

“And I love yours.”

Malka blushed. She was about to unbuckle but stopped herself. “What do you think it is, you know? How does a couple stay together? There are so many things that can go wrong, even to people you least expect. What’s the magic ingredient?”

“I don’t really know, but we have the rest of our lives to figure it out. And we’ll consult with all the people who can help us.”

Aryeh got out of the car and walked around to open the passenger door for Malka.

“You ready?”

Malka gave a firm nod and stepped beside Aryeh. She smiled at him as he held open the door to the City Clerk’s office and walked in with a renewed resolve to commit to Aryeh the dreamer, the man who made her feel like she owned the sky.


(Originally featured in Family First, Issue 901)

Oops! We could not locate your form.