| Real Life |

For Good Measure

I stopped eating. “We’re doing Eretz Yisrael? Uh, why? How?”

The price of frozen strawberries was highway robbery.

I hesitated for a moment, then returned the package to the freezer. Tzirel bought fresh strawberries and peeled each one, but I had no time for that. So… improvise. I could do a pineapple-kiwi-mango smoothie, that should work.

On my way out of the grocery, I scanned my receipt. My mother wouldn’t stop teasing me — “Groceries suddenly started charging for stuff, huh?” But then she’d laugh and tell me to take some paper goods, she just did a Costco order. Seriously, food cost a fortune. And we were only two people.

Gavriel was already home for lunch when I arrived. I loved that our schedules matched, and we could have lunch together every day.

But first, his nap.

“How do you do it?” I marveled. “Hit your pillow, fall asleep, then jump out of bed nine-and-half-minutes later?”

He shrugged, laughed, and went to sleep. A minute later, my mother called.

“Hey, Shev, will you be available tonight? A new kallah is coming over.”

Grr. I had so much college work to catch up on. I really, really needed this night. “Hmmm.”

“Only if you’re up to it. If you can’t, don’t worry, I’ll manage.”

“No, no, I’ll come. I’ll figure it out.”

I’d wake up an hour early tomorrow to catch up on college work. My mother paid me per appointment, why lose out?

The paninis were just about ready when Gavriel returned to the kitchen. “And you’re not even bleary-eyed,” I said. “Ten minutes for me is a killer. If I’d sleep like that, I’d wake up a zombie.”

”Make fun,” he grumbled.

I put a bowl of salad on the table and we sat down to eat.

“The guys were talking about Av bein hazmanim today,” Gavriel started. “It’s in less than three months. If we want to do something, we need to book already.”

“Book?”

“Tickets. We’ll probably do Eretz Yisrael, right?”

I stopped eating. “We’re doing Eretz Yisrael? Uh, why? How?”

Gavriel reached for the juice. “Yeah, all shanah rishonah couples do Eretz Yisrael. Why, did you have something else in mind?”

“No, no, I didn’t have anything in mind. I mean, I didn’t know we were planning anything.”

 

“We weren’t,” Gavriel said, “I’m saying we probably should. Apartments get booked months in advance.”

“I see.”

“What do you think? Should we work with a travel agent or try to find tickets on our own on Expedia or whatever? Travel agents help you if you have any problems, but they’re probably more expensive.”

“Gavriel, could we back up a second?”

He looked up from his plate. “What?”

“I need to understand. Why would we go to Eretz Yisrael? Doesn’t an Eretz Yisrael trip cost like $10,000?”

“Uh, I didn’t price it yet, but makes sense it would be in that range. Between tickets and renting a dirah and a car, I guess, maybe a little less?”

I twisted the juice bottle cap. “Where exactly are we taking this money from?”

He looked surprised. “What do you mean? We don’t have $10,000? Of course we do.”

“We have it, but not for vacation. We’re not using up a good chunk of our savings to go on a trip for a month, right?”

“It’s not —” he floundered. “I mean, what do you plan on doing with the money?”

“Save it!”

“For what?”

“For buying a house? For starting a business? For marrying off our children?”

Gavriel burst out laughing. “Seriously?! You’re saving money now to marry off children who don’t yet exist?”

“No. Yes. Yes. Isn’t that the right thing to do? We could go on vacation eventually, when we have a decent income. Not while I’m teaching and you’re in kollel. It’s… it doesn’t make sense.”

Gavriel pushed his chair back. “Look, Shevy, I hear what you’re saying. Honestly, I never thought of it this way, but of course you have a point. It’s just, let’s be realistic. If we ever want to do Eretz Yisrael, this is probably our only chance. This time next year we could totally be parents. And with a baby, it’s never going to happen.

“Look at all young couples. Everyone tries to chap arein before the kids tie them down. I get that it’s a lot of money, but really, when it comes to buying a house or making a wedding, $10,000 won’t make it or break it, agree?”

No, I did not agree. Like very, very not. But ugh, I hated arguing with Gavriel. Especially about money. It made me feel so petty.

“Whatever.” I turned back to my food.

Gavriel smoothly changed the conversation, and we finished our meal. I was about to start bentshing when he stood up. “Wait, don’t bentsh yet.”

He went to the fridge and took out a bag. “Smoothies,” he said proudly.

I blinked. Smoothies, yay. I loved smoothies.

I took a sip — and winced.

“No good?” Gavriel looked worried.

“No, it’s great. Just my tooth, ouch. I need to go to the dentist.”

Which was a hundred percent true. My tooth was hurting lately.

When Gavriel left, I went over to the garbage and took out the Sweetie bag. The receipt was wet, but I made out the numbers. And cringed.

Each cup cost as much as an entire bag of strawberries.

 

The thing with a toothache is that it goes away, you forget about it, then it comes back one random morning with such a searing vengeance, you don’t know where to put yourself.

Okay, dentist. Today. But meanwhile, Motrin.

Of course, once the Motrin kicked in, I forgot about the dentist and continued on my merry way. School, lunch, college, supper. My mother didn’t need me in the consignment store that night, so when Tzirel suggested we go brisk-walking — shake off shanah rishonah calories — I agreed.

We met up at nine and headed off.

“Listen to this, Shev,” Tzirel said. “I just read somewhere that you should never spend more than 25 percent of your income on housing. Do you think that’s true?

I did a quick mental calculation of my teaching salary plus Gavriel’s kollel stipend. Our rent was definitely more than 25 percent of that, way more. “That probably doesn’t apply to condensed Jewish communities.”

“I know, right? It’s crazy. We don’t even have kids yet and we barely cover our month. This is probably the only time we could be saving a few dollars every month, but the rent prices are insane.”

I didn’t believe her. Tzirel had a solid office job, nine to five, why was she barely making it? She wasn’t lying, I guessed, but she was probably exaggerating. She always did this, got some sort of thrill of playing pauper. It peeved me to no end.

Tzirel wasn’t done. “I guess at our stage it also depends if parents support and if you have a side income or something.”

“I guess,” I said vaguely. I knew where this was going. Did my parents support? Did Gavriel’s? Did we have a side income? Did the school give me a raise when I got married and does Gavriel’s kollel pay shmiras hazmanim, and if so, how much, and what about my gown consignment work?

“It’s not only the rent,” Tzirel went on. “There are all the bills, like phone, utilities… when you add those up, you — Hey, Shev, could you slow down?” She was panting. I slowed down a bit. Why were we forever talking about money? We could talk about anything. Recipes and Shabbos plans, and wait, bein hazmanim trips.

Ha. If I told Tzirel that Gavriel was thinking about a trip to Eretz Yisrael she would seriously faint. Recipes it would have to be.

We were swapping lunch ideas when my phone rang. I glanced at the screen — Yocheved Lewin.

“Hey, Tante,” I sang.

“How’s the view from the clouds, Mrs. Engel?”

I groaned.

“Enjoy the time. Nothing like shanah rishonah.” She coughed. “Anyway, I wanted to ask you, what’s your schedule like these days? Are you free afternoons?”

Where was this going? “I’m busy with college work, but I’m CLEPing, so I’m not on any specific schedule. Why?”

Tzirel was eyeing me closely. I lowered the earpiece volume.

“I was just wondering,” Yocheved said, “it’s so busy in the boutique these days, we could use some help. Would you consider the job?”

 

Eretz Yisrael had become our very first elephant.

I huddled in my jacket outside Kesser Chaim, waiting for Gavriel. When he showed up, we headed toward our car together.

But not quite together. “Uh, Gav, I’m wearing heels.”

“Whoops, sorry.” He grinned at me. “Self-inflicted torture.”

I chuckled. And then, boom. Silence.

It had been happening all week, at random times. It was like we were stuck in middle of that Eretz Yisrael conversation, at the awkward-silence part, and we couldn’t move past it. The topic would bloom in my head, and try as I might, I could think of nothing else to talk about.

It lasted less than a minute, and then both of us started chattering at once, about anything and nothing. The vort we’d just been to, our Shabbos plans, how delicious the mushroom calzone lunch had been.

I was sick of it.

We got into the car and Gavriel started driving.

“I met Zalmen Roth in shul this morning,” he said. “Your friend Tzirel’s husband?”

“Nice.”

“He was learning with Retek, the one from the plumbing supplies.”

“What do you mean? Isn’t he in kollel in the morning?”

“I guess not. Many yungeleit do that. They learn with these balabatim, they get paid pretty well.”

Ah. So Tzirel’s husband had a job. A lomdus type of job, fine, but he was doing something to earn money. For some ridiculous reason, it bothered me.

Why?

Fifteen minutes later, with my heels off and a snood on my head, I took out my largest pot and a bag of popcorn kernels. Freshly popped popcorn at midnight. So shanah rishonah.

As the kernels popped, I mulled over the question again. Why did Tzirel’s husband’s job bother me?

I knew very well why.

It wasn’t because Tzirel hadn’t told me about it. That bothered me, too. A lot, actually. All her whining about life’s expenses while secretly building up savings. It was annoying.

But what really bothered me was that the Roths were doing the right thing. Being proactive, thinking about the future.

While Gavriel and I would wipe out our entire savings on a single trip.

 

I called Gavriel as soon as I left the school building. “Your lunch is in a container in the fridge. And there’s a muffin on the counter.”

“You’re not coming home?”

“No, I’ll go straight to the boutique. It’s very out of the way so I wouldn’t be home for more than five minutes.”

“Ah.”

Was he disappointed? He hadn’t sounded excited when I’d told him about the job. “Why do you have to work so hard?” he’d asked.

Because if we’re blowing ten grand on a honeymoon, we should probably increase our income somehow.

But I hadn’t told him that. I simply told him I enjoyed working with kallahs, and Yocheved was desperate, so why not?

But now I started thinking, maybe he was upset that we wouldn’t have lunch together anymore? Ugh.

Yocheved and my mother were at the front desk when I arrived at the boutique. Yocheved saw me and whistled. “No way. I never saw you in this wig. Mina, she suddenly looks like you!”

I grinned. “Don’t tell me I look like I’m my mother’s age.”

“No,” my mother said. “She’s saying that I look like I’m 23.”

Yocheved showed me the schedule for the afternoon. “I want you to work with me and Yelena on a fitting. You’ll learn a lot this way, and eventually you’ll be able to conduct a fitting with her on your own. Should we try it?”

“I think so.” I didn’t want to mention my experience conducting fittings. I still wasn’t sure how she felt about my mother’s consignment store.

“And then if you get the hang of it,” Yocheved continued, “maybe you could take over for me when I go away in August. You’re off in the summer, right?”

August. Oh my goodness.

I glanced at my mother. She was talking on the phone. “Uh, I don’t know. I guess we’ll see?”

“Unless you plan on going away? Summer vacation?”

And of course my mother had to hang up the phone then. “Who’s going on vacation?”

Yocheved Lewin, thank you. Thank you so much.

There comes a time when you have to make the phone call.

“Yes, it’s an emergency. I need to come in today. Like right now.”

The secretary clucked. “Hmm, no cancellations today. Come in if you’d like, but you’ll have to wait a while.”

If I’d like? I was dying of pain, did I have a choice?

I called in sick to tell school I was being absent, so sorry, I hope you can find a sub, it’s an emergency. Then I popped two Motrins, and rushed out to the dentist.

The wait was longer than “a while.” Way longer, to the point that the Motrin was already wearing off by the time they called my name. I suffered through the X-rays.

Finally, Dr. Troy entered. He glanced at the scans and frowned. “Root canal.”

Nooo. How had this happened?

“You didn’t have any pain until now?”

“I did,” I admitted. “But it stopped hurting, so I forgot about it.”

He shook his head. “Everyone makes this mistake. A tooth stops hurting doesn’t mean the cavity went away. If you come in right away you get the tooth filled. If you neglect it…” He waved at his screen. “Root canal.”

Thanks for the mussar shmuess.

He went on to explain the process. Basically come back once a week for the rest of your life to endure more and more pain. And of course it was my own fault, I had neglected it.

“And by the way,” he said, “insurance won’t cover this. This is a molar, so the price is $1,100. And you’ll need a crown, that’s another $600.”

I nearly fainted. “It costs $1,700?”

“Yep. Next time come in right away when you feel pain.”

Thanks, rub it in, with salt and pepper.

“I need to think about this.”

“Think about what? The tooth is dead.”

But …

I scheduled an appointment to “start the process.”

When I left, I flipped my phone open. I had to call someone to vent. Seventeen hundred dollars? That was an entire month’s rent! Insanity. What did insurance cover?

But I couldn’t figure out whom to call. Tzirel? No, I didn’t want to do to her what she did to me. It annoyed me to no end. Gavriel? Ugh, no. I was so embarrassed. I knew the expense wouldn’t faze him, but I wasn’t ready to admit that it was my fault.

Ma. My mother would get it. She would agree with me how awful and unfair it was. She would gasp and tsk-tsk and maybe even offer to cover some of the cost.

But no, I couldn’t call my mother.

I winced, and not from tooth pain. My mother’s face when I’d mumbled an answer that day in the boutique flashed before my eyes. “Not sure yet,” I’d said, averting her gaze. “We’re thinking about Eretz Yisrael.”

It was as though I’d slapped her. Her daughter, whom she’d raised to be mature and responsible, to appreciate simplicity, had turned her back on her. Defied the chinuch model she’d so painstakingly developed.

I’d let her down. I’d lost her trust. I’d lost my respect in her eyes.

And what’s more, I’d lost my license to complain.

 

“Shevy,” Gavriel said, “could I ask you a question?”

I looked up from my essay paper. “Shoot.”

“Do you have a fear of being poor?”

“Huh?” I put down my pen and eyed him quizzically. “No,” I answered cautiously. No, I do not have a fear of being poor. You’re asking because…?”

“Uh, the root canal, you’re so bothered by it.”

“You don’t expect me to jump for joy over a root canal, do you?”

“No. No, of course not. Never mind, I didn’t mean anything.”

Which was a lie. He meant something very specific. Gavriel was talking about the trip. Again the trip. Always the trip. Without ever exchanging a word about it, all we spoke about these days was the trip.

I watched him bring his Gemara over to the table and prop it on the little shtender I’d bought him for his birthday.

Why, I thought miserably, if I was doing the right thing, was nobody happy?

I’d accepted the fact that we were going to Eretz Yisrael, but that didn’t seem to help anyone. I wasn’t excited about the trip, my mother was disappointed in me, and worst of all, I’d given Gavriel a sour taste about the whole thing.

Somehow, no matter what I did, I messed up. As Dr. Troy could attest, it was all my fault.

 

Sheitel box, carry-on, garment bag.

Apple pie!

“Phew, Gav, I nearly forgot the apple pie!”

Gavriel slammed the car trunk shut. “I don’t know why you had to make it. My mother loves hosting, she doesn’t want you to feel pressured when she invites us for Shabbos.”

She didn’t want, but I couldn’t help it. I loved my mother-in-law dearly, but the Engel household was so drastically different from my parents’ home, so formal, it simply felt right to show up with apple pie.

“Looks who’s here,” my mother-in-law sang when we arrived. “And oh my,” she said, taking the pie, “thank you so much, this looks amazing. You really didn’t have to, Shevy.”

And from that moment forward, I was the royal guest. I wished my mother-in-law wouldn’t host so studiously. I felt so uncomfortable with all the efforts she made to make me feel comfortable. And then Gavriel wondered why I couldn’t be my natural self at his parents’ house.

Still, Shabbos was nice and I enjoyed Gavriel’s sisters’ company. Motzaei Shabbos, my mother-in-law turned on our wedding video. My sisters-in-law sat down with us to watch it.

“You looked so beautiful,” my mother-in-law said warmly as I appeared on the screen.

“Yeah, I’m still gaga over your gown,” Gavriel’s sister Dina said. “It was stunning.”

I was blushing like mad. Did we really have to watch this with a crowd?

“You said you got it from a friend?”

“Yeah,” I muttered. “It’s a long story, like 43 chapters. Coming out in a book, actually. Look out for it.”

Gavriel brought out drinks. “Crazy how fast time flies, huh? This wedding feels like it happened yesterday.”

“Like yesterday, but also like a hundred years ago,” I said. “That type.”

“Exactly.”

My brothers appeared, behaving like morons. I blushed for them.

Dina reached for the juice. “Hey, are you guys planning a honeymoon?”

“Yes,” I said.

“No,” Gavriel said, sharply, at the same moment.

I turned to him. Our eyes locked.

“Yes or no?” Dina asked.

Neither of us answered.

 

“Okay,” I said as soon as we got into the car. “What’s the story?”

“You tell me,” Gavriel shot back. “Which honeymoon are we going on?”

“Uh, Eretz Yisrael? Like all shanah rishonah couples?”

He stopped at a red light. “You said we shouldn’t use up our savings on a trip.”

“But I made up my mind right away that we’ll just do it, it’s what you want.”

“And I made up my mind right away that we won’t do it, it’s what you don’t want.”

“But —”

“But what?”

“But… all those things you said! About $10,000 not making or breaking it, about it being our only opportunity, about all the couples that do it.”

Gavriel was quiet for a minute. “Let’s talk when we get home, okay?”

“Okay.”

When we got home, we went out on our front porch. The porch had been the feature that had made this apartment win my heart. A week after our wedding we’d gone to IKEA and bought a tiny table with two small chairs. It was a charming little space, I loved it.

We sat down on those chairs now.

“All right, talk to me,” I said.

“What do you want to hear?”

“I want to hear why you changed your mind. You were so set on going. What happened?”

Gavriel planted his elbows on the table. “Because you’re right,” he said. “I hadn’t considered the full picture. You’re the one who worked so hard to build this nest egg. You’re the one who runs out to teach every day, the one who’s cramming college work and doing consignments at night. And now you’re working for your aunt as well. You’re right, it isn’t fair. I didn’t realize what this means to you, probably because I wasn’t the one who invested so much effort to save all this money.”

What was he saying? We were going to Eretz Yisrael! I was fine with it. I’d agreed, I’d already told my mother.

“I’m trying to understand,” I said carefully. “You want to go to Eretz Yisrael, but you won’t go because you feel bad to spend money I worked for?”

“Yes. I mean, no. I mean, I just want you to be happy.”

“And you think saving money will make me happy?”

“It won’t?”

I raked my fingers through my sheitel. “Gavriel…”

His face was clouded. He was clearly a mile away from comfort zone.

“I’m sorry, Gavriel. I —I didn’t mean to do this to you.”

“You didn’t do anything. I told you, you’re a hundred percent right. I wasn’t thinking. It was selfish of me, to think of going on such a trip.”

“You’re not selfish.”

“Thoughtless, then. Whatever you want to call it. Point is you’re right, I was too easy about such a major expense.”

I chewed my lip. “Or maybe I was too hard. On you. On us.”

“What does that mean?”

“Honestly?” I said. “I’m not quite sure.”

 

“I have a dentist appointment in an hour,” I told Gavriel when he came home for lunch.

He frowned. “Oy, that’s not fun.”

“You could say that again.” I sliced an avocado in half and popped the pit out. “Anyway, I need to give $700 today. Do we have cash in the house?”

“Yes, sure. I have an envelope in my drawer, under my pajamas.”

“K, thanks, I’ll get it before I leave.”

I finished preparing lunch. Pita, guacamole, sliced vegetables.

When we finished eating, Gavriel offered to wash the dishes, and I went to my room to get ready. I had to hurry.

Before I left, I went over to Gavriel’s drawer to get the money. I found the envelope and counted out the bills.

Argh. This was torture. Every bill I counted was like ripping off a part of myself. I couldn’t believe I was spending all this money on a tooth. Well, goes to show how little control I had over money. I could scrimp and save and deliberate over every grocery item, and then whoosh, I had to shell it all out on one miserable tooth.

I stuck the envelope back under the pajamas. I was about to close the drawer when I noticed a bag behind the pile. It was a small, black canvas bag with gold embroidered lettering. Schneider’s Jewelry.

My pulse quickened.

I shouldn’t look. I knew I shouldn’t look. It was totally wrong. This was my husband’s drawer, I was invading his space. I had to close the drawer, forget what I saw.

But even as those thoughts raced through my mind, my fingers reached for the bag.

I peeked inside. A box. And a note.

I took out the note first. Only it wasn’t a note. It was a letter, in Gavriel’s handwriting, folded up. I read it quickly. All the way to the signature. A kosher’n, freilechen Pesach, Gavriel

Pesach?

Pesach Sheini was the next day.

I opened the box. A beautiful ring rested in the slit of a velvet pillow.

My husband had bought me a gift. And he was afraid to give it to me.

“Are we out of Palmolive?”

I snapped the box shut. “Gavriel.”

His eyes traveled to my hands. “What is that?

“What is that? Don’t you think I should be asking you that question?”

“It’s…” He walked to the window and stared out. “I guess that wasn’t the best hiding place.”

“You hid this for a month.”

He whirled around. “That’s right. I did. I hid it, and now I’ll return it.”

“Is that what you planned to do?”

He was quiet, tugging at the strings of the window blinds. When he finally spoke, it was like he was spitting words out. “I bought this ring because I wanted to treat you. But there’s no point in treating you if you wouldn’t feel treated.”

I stared down at the bag. “It’s a beautiful ring. I love it.”

“I wanted it to give it to you for Pesach.”

“But you were afraid I’d have a heart attack that you spent all that money.”

He nodded. “Yes,” he said. “Yes, I was.”

I took the box out of the bag and opened it again. The ring was a masterpiece. I pulled it out and slipped it onto my finger, aware that Gavriel was watching me closely.

“We need to talk,” I said quietly.

 

Tzirel came over Friday night after lichtbentshen.

“I love your apartment, it’s so cozy,” she said.

I looked around my dining room. The table was covered in a white lace tablecloth — a gift from Gavriel’s mother — my silver leichter and a vase filled with flowers, Gavriel’s weekly treat. The table wasn’t set because we were going to my parents for the seudah.

“Thanks,” I told her. “It’s home, huh?”

“Yup.”

And then I told her about Eretz Yisrael.

“Wow,” Tzirel murmured. “I’m so happy for you. That’s amazing.”

Nu, ask all your questions already. How much are the tickets? The apartment, the car, food, itinerary? Come on, bookkeeper, play your role.

But Tzirel didn’t ask. She had a strange expression on her face. I was so curious what she was thinking.

She crossed her legs. “You know, my husband has this dream of doing a trip to Eretz Yisrael.”

“Really?”

“But it’s never going to happen. We can’t afford it.”

I nodded pensively. “I hear that.”

I heard, and I got it. But I couldn’t help pitying her. I knew what it was like to build a life around one’s bank account. It wasn’t pleasant.

Tzirel left when Gavriel arrived home from shul.

“Ready?” Gavriel asked.

“Just give me a sec.”

I went to my room and opened my drawer. The Schneider’s box was right there, and in it, the beautiful ring my husband had bought me.

I didn’t have to wear it today. We were going to my parents, to their simply furnished dining room with the outdated vertical blinds. What would my mother think, her newly married daughter going on honeymoons, wearing gorgeous new jewelry? It was almost… embarrassing.

But then I thought of Gavriel. The pit in his stomach that the gift he wished to give his wife would make her upset. The ambivalence toward the trip he’d so been looking forward to.

Gingerly, I slipped the ring onto my finger and joined my husband at the door.

(Originally featured in Family First, Issue 712)

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