The lecturer looked the questioner up and down, as if to judge whether she deserved an answer
enny Portman hung up the phone, and, noticing herself in the mirror, she frowned.
It wasn’t that she needed Shuey to come home for supper, though it would have been nice. But since he’d planned to be there, she had prepared meatballs and spaghetti, which the kids would grumble about. She wouldn’t have gone through the effort if she had known he wasn’t going to end up coming home.
She wasn’t one of those kvetchy women who made it into a whole serial story every time she had to be alone, like Nechy from across the street whose husband had been stranded in Chicago last Shabbos because of bad weather, and the whole neighborhood had to hear every single detail.
The canceled flight, the second flight, the second cancelation, the option to Philly. Nechy had a pool, so everyone had to pretend they were interested, jaws dropping and eyes opening wide every time she added another little bit of suspense.
Ohmigosh, what happened next Nechy. Tell us. Poor you!
Nechy’s husband had cousins in Chicago, but they ended up not being home. There was an old yeshivah friend, but he was going through a rough patch in his marriage and it wasn’t a good time. Nechy dropped this, about the marriage, like she was a therapist bound by a confidentiality agreement and this was all she could say. Chabad was always an option, but in Chicago? It was like, come on, you can’t figure it out without Chabad?
The back-and-forth took Nechy half an hour, and then nice Chava Zurman from the development on Violet said, “Nu, so what did he do at the end?”
And Nechy nodded like, I’m getting there, be patient, and told the women who were listening despite themselves that he was just too tired and bought takeout and found a hotel near a shul and spent a long Shabbos afternoon catching up on sleep.
And they could not imagine how badly he needed that sleep, so it was all for the best, right?
“But what about your sleep?” Chava Zurman, ever eager for a pool invite, chirped.
Henny wanted to tell her that it was almost winter and next June, Nechy wouldn’t remember this little show of interest.
She didn’t say anything, of course. No drama for her; Henny Portman wasn’t that type of wife. If her husband wasn’t coming home, then he wasn’t coming home, fine. But what was weirding her out this time was the way he’d told her.
She remembered the singing years, how he would always call during recording sessions and rehearsals to say hi, but sometimes he was there, zoned in on her and the children, and other times it was like he was reading words off a paper.
“Hey, love to the kids, good luck with bedtime, don’t worry about supper I have food, bye, see you later.”
It was his celebrity voice, the way he answered people who stopped in the street or store to tell him how much they loved his music, how they’d walked down to “Zara Chaya” at their wedding or sang “Racheim” every Shabbos at the table.
She knew that face he made: bland, creased in a way he thought looked interested but really looked like he’d smelled something unpleasant, and the way his voice got squeakier than usual as he’d say, “That’s really nice, I appreciate this, thank you for coming over.”
Now get out of my way and let me sing, you’re the background, I have other places to be and other people to hang out with.
Maybe she was imagining it, but that’s how he had sounded today. Like there was something else going on that she wasn’t part of.
This thought hovered around Henny Portman all night long, as she ate the meatballs and spaghetti herself and made grilled cheese for everyone else, as she called her sisters to distract herself and straightened up the living room and read her daily Chofetz Chaim.
Once, she remembered, she got stuck at a marriage class. It was a shiur, and her cousin Rivky was doing it in her house l’illui nishmas Bubby, so Henny felt compelled to go, and only a few minutes in did she realize it wasn’t a regular parshah shiur, or chizuk talk, but straight-up marriage advice.
The lecturer, a thin woman from England who bobbed her head too much, said that sometimes, one spouse is going through a situation that they don’t talk about, for whatever reason.
It turned out that the one spouse meant husband, and every single woman in the room leaned forward, as if the lecturer was speaking to her.
Henny also sat a bit straighter.
“Now, if your husband is involved in a complicated business deal, for example, and he doesn’t feel like you’ll understand it, or maybe he’s in kollel and his chavrusa dumped him, that happens, you know.” The lecturer knew she had the people, and she lowered her voice. “And when it does, we feel like we should give them space, let them figure it out. You’re not a business partner or a chavrusa, right?”
Then she was thundering again. “Wrong. That’s wrong.
“When that happens, instead of being shut out, make yourself part of it. Go through the door into the private space along with them. That’s marriage!”
“Wait.” This wasn’t the type of lecturer who wanted questions, but the woman to Henny’s left, an assertive sort who took an extra chair for her pocketbook, didn’t seem to care. “Wait, but what about his right to privacy, to space? Why isn’t that unfair? I don’t get it.”
The lecturer looked the questioner up and down, as if to judge whether she deserved an answer.
Finally, she looked around and said, “So why isn’t it unfair,” dragging out the question, “why isn’t it unfair…
“Here’s the reason. Because eventually, he’ll come out of it, he’ll get past it, the business deal will work itself out, he’ll find another chavrusa… Now if you left him space, if you were ‘fair,’ then he created a new sphere in his life that you’re not part of. Going forward, you’re an outsider… but if you barged in and made yourself part of his situation, then now you’re a real partner, and so many more doors open up in a marriage when you do that.”
Henny had left the shiur — after telling her cousin Rivky how amazing it had been, how uplifted she felt, what a zechus it was for Bubby’s neshamah — feeling unsettled. Marriage wasn’t a battle for relevance and attention, and she thought the lecturer had been underselling all the women who’d come out seeking inspiration.
But still, the message had stuck, and now, at eleven fifteen on an October night, when normally she would have been sleeping, she called her husband.
“Hey, what’s up?” He answered on the first ring, which she hadn’t expected. “Hen? Is everything okay?” There was a note of concern, and he was totally present, she noted, which left her feeling silly.
“Yeah, sure, just wanted to say good night. I’m going to shut it down, wanted to check in, that’s all.”
“Oh.” He was relieved. “Amazing, sleep well. You must be bombed. Long day.”
“Yes,” she conceded, feeling taken care of. She didn’t need to be in his private space, it was fine, she was okay.
But then she surprised herself and asked, “Shuey, is something going on in your life besides yeshivah? Like, something I don’t know about?”
(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 825)
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