| Calligraphy |

Game of Chance

“If we were at a restaurant, another dessert would be an additional ten dollars. But at home it’s still from the same $4.99 pint”

“What’s this?”

Laibel fingered the pink slip of paper.

“What does it look like? A lottery ticket,” Zeidy said, reaching high to pinch his grandson’s cheek. “I follow the news. You kids are drowning in student debt, I figured this was the only way you’d make it out alive.”

Laibel chuckled, put the ticket back in the card, and passed it to Shira. “Zeidy’s graduation gift.”

Shira attempted a laugh, but it didn’t sound natural like her husband’s. “Thank you for coming, Zeidy, it means a lot to us,” she said graciously.

The old man looked up at his granddaughter-in-law. “It’s not every day my progeny graduates from NYU with an MBA. I’d feel important, but I don’t want to know how much your fancy piece of paper cost.”

Shira bristled. Laibel smiled easily and clapped his grandfather on the shoulder. “Don’t worry about us, Zeidy, we’ve got it all figured out.”

“Mazel tov, Laibel,” Shira said after dessert of their post-graduation celebratory dinner. Laibel was licking his spoon after scraping his ramekin clean. “Want more?” she offered. Laibel handed her his empty ramekin. Shira left to refill it and was back moments later.

“If we were at a restaurant, another dessert would be an additional ten dollars. But at home it’s still from the same $4.99 pint.”

Laibel gave her a lopsided smile. “Amazing.”

Shifra pointed to their empty plates. “Seventy-five bucks, tops — with leftovers in the kitchen. This would be close to $200 or more in a proper steakhouse.”

“For sure,” Laibel said, scooping sorbet into his mouth.

“And Mommy and Tatty gave us $400 to eat out in style — we’re totally ahead this month. Should we start paying off your student loans now? They’re not due yet, but it still accrues interest even if

you don’t have pay them yet.”

“Ah,” Laibel hesitated. “Let’s figure out what to do with our windfall later, let’s just celebrate now.”

“Sure,” Shira said. Her fingers twitched on the stem of the wine glass, but she changed the subject. “Some gag gift from Zeidy.”

“Yeah, he’s a funny guy.” Laibel laughed. Shira didn’t.

“I was a little offended,” she started. “Like you said, we have it under control. It’s like he doesn’t trust us or something.”

“Oh c’mon,” Laibel waved a hand. “He wasn’t thinking of us as us, but us as the young people he watches on the news.”

“Whatever.” Shira shrugged. “Maybe Zaidy should read Dave Ramsey’s book on financial peace and he’ll understand that we have a plan. ‘Live today like no one else, so you can live tomorrow like no one else,’ ” she quoted.

Laibel finished his sorbet. Shira sipped at her wine.

“I graduated. Can you believe it?” Laibel said after a quiet minute. They both broke into broad, genuine, disbelieving smiles. The tension of moments before dissipated in the joy of the moment, the knowledge that they had their whole lives ahead of them, no more droning professors or pointless group projects.

  

“Do you mind organizing your desk before Shabbos?” Shira asked Laibel, four weeks later. “It’s starting to creep over to my stuff.”

“Sure,” Laibel said, but inwardly he groaned. He examined the contents of his desk and started shuffling objects. He picked up his tallis bag. A thread from the embroidery was loose; Laibel tugged at it and the lamed of Laibel rapidly disappeared. Laibel frowned, then shrugged, it was ugly now but the bag was still functional. He moved it to the buffet. Back at his desk there were ten copies of his resume floating around. He gathered the extras and dumped them in the garbage. Next he shifted a manila envelope that held his transcripts. Underneath it was the envelope with Zeidy’s card. He paused to open the envelope. The pink lottery ticket slipped out and landed on his lap. Laibel smiled to himself. “Might as well check,” he mumbled. He looked around; Shira was in the kitchen. She’d just be annoyed seeing the ticket; it was the antithesis of who she was. Quick and easy was not her mantra.

The Mega Millions website was easy enough. The numbers of the last drawing flashed on the screen and right below was an option to check previous drawings. Laibel clicked, chose his date, then memorized the sequence on the screen and looked down at the slip on his desk. His stomach did a roller coaster drop. He brought the ticket close to his face and compared each number one by one. They all matched. Even the extra gold one at the end. He checked again. Then again.

He scrolled down to the prizes. The amounts depended on how many numbers matched, from just the gold, to two to three, the prize increasing with more matches. The lowest prize was $6, with over 200,000 winners. He looked up the Jackpot — it was $20 million. His eyes shifted to the column listing the number of winners. One. Him.

Laibel sat there, just looking at the screen, then at the ticket, then back at the screen, frozen in a loop.

“Laibel?” Shira called.

Shira. He should tell her. He hesitated. No, he should surprise her. He shuffled more paper into a single pile on his desk, making it look like he had organized them. Then he went to the kitchen to help his wife.

  

Friday brought Laibel to the lottery offices. It was a simple procedure, a lot of smiling and back-clapping, congratulations with some twinges of envy, but not too much — it was only twenty million before taxes, not like the drawing earlier in the month, which had been $522 million. Laibel had hoped for a money transfer that day, but the lottery officials laughed and said, “I’m sure ten days won’t make much of a difference.” Shira would have to wait. He picked up flowers and chocolate on the way home. That much he could do.

  

When the kids were in bed Friday night, Shira put down the magazine she was reading. “What’s with the flowers and chocolate?” She tried to sound light and casual, but her voice was too curious. Laibel knew she was probably wondering what was it for, if they really needed it now, and what should she categorize it as, Miscellaneous Household, or Non-recurring?

Laibel looked up from his sefer and gave a small shrug. “Just a small something. I never got you anything after I graduated — sometimes I feel like we graduated. You deserve it.”

Shira smiled appreciatively. The words “budget,” “category” and “necessary” died in her throat. She picked up her magazine to continue reading, then put it down.

“I was thinking of catering Yoni’s bar mitzvah myself. It was so easy to make a fancy supper, we’re not having many people, and it’ll be so cost-effective.”

Laibel looked at his wife. A day ago he might have considered her suggestion; it was rough and unconventional, but possibly necessary to their financial health. Today, it seemed utterly ridiculous.

“Let’s discuss this after Shabbos,” he said.

“You’re right,” she conceded. “I think too much about how everything ties in to our finances.” She picked up her magazine again and this time continued reading. Laibel’s gaze lingered on his wife, a pang of anxiety flitting through his chest.

  

Ten agonizing days later, Laibel refreshed his bank account page every five minutes. Nothing happened until 12:05. His account balance went from $2,487.00 to $7,707,487.00. Laibel looked to his left and right, but no one paid him any attention. He sank into his seat with a self-satisfied smile. Then he rose and left work for the day. First stop, a jewelry store for an eternity band.

Laibel thought about Shira as he drove. She pretended to have no needs or wants. And maybe she really could do without. Well, she did do without. But she liked eternity bands, aesthetically and symbolically. When the first of her friends reached her ten-year anniversary and waved around her right hand like a newly engaged kallah, blinding people with the diamonds’ radiance, Shira had commented on it, broke it down, what she liked and didn’t like about it. She never once said, “I’d pick one that…” But the analysis was so precise that by the time three other friends had acquired eternity bands of their own, Laibel knew exactly what she wanted even if she’d never admit to it: emerald cut diamonds, big enough to notice, but not too big to look bulky on her petite fingers.

Fifteen thousand dollars later, Laibel patted his jacket pocket. Shira’s dream ring was in there.

  

Laibel pulled up to Shira’s office and hesitated. What would he say? What would she say? He pulled the ring out of his pocket. It caught the light and radiated glory. Laibel winked at it. “Let’s wing it,” he said, and dialed Shira.

“Hi, is everything okay?” She sounded winded.

“Yes, sure,” Laibel said soothingly. “Something interesting came up, I’m sitting in the parking lot of your office. Can you come down for a minute?”

“What’s wrong?”

“Nothing, nothing,” Laibel assured her. “It’ll just be a minute.”

“Okay, give me five minutes, just need to finish something here.”

“Sure.” Laibel hung up. Shira had sounded so worried. Was it so unusual for him to do something like this, to visit her, to surprise her? Extreme budgeting, he realized for the first time, had quashed a part of him, and now so many opportunities presented themselves. Not to be reckless — budgeting and responsibility have their place. But knowing that student loans and mortgages would very soon be a thing of the past opened the world to him, and he could embrace his spontaneous side for the first time in years. Laibel twitched in anticipation. It was like his life force was slowly returning after a 12-year hiatus, dripping in slowly and steadily like an IV line. When Shira slid into the car a few minutes later, Laibel couldn’t suppress his grin.

“What’s wrong?” Shira peered at Laibel maternally, like she was looking for signs of fever.

“Ask me what’s right,” Laibel countered. Shira gave him a look.

“Okay, what’s right?”

“Everything!”

Shira raised a brow now. Laibel shifted his body to face Shira directly. “I need to tell you something, and give you something, but I need you to not freak out.”

Shira did not look excited and curious as Laibel had hoped. Anxiety and concern knotted her face.

“Are you feeling okay?” Shira asked.

Her tone irritated him. Laibel reached into his pocket.

“This is for you. From me. With every bit of love, respect, and wonder I can have for a person.”

Did that sound right? He hadn’t planned the words and now he was giving his wife a $15,000 ring, no birthday or anniversary in sight. She was going to lose it.

Shira took the box tepidly. Laibel started talking fast.

“Remember Zeidy gave me a lottery ticket as a gift? I almost threw it out, but then I checked, and we won, we WON. I went to the lottery commission, the money was wired today. Over seven million.”

Shira, who hadn’t opened the box yet, twitched her head at the amount.

“What? We won? Seven million? What are you saying, Laibel? Are you having a breakdown? I know it’s been stressful and tight financially, but we can do it. Or we don’t have to be so aggressive.”

Laibel sighed. He gestured for her to open the box while he took out his phone and opened the Chase Mobile App. He heard Shira gasp. He looked at her face and couldn’t read it. She loved it, that he was sure of, but she thought he was losing it.

“Laibel, I, I—” Shira seemed to lose her ability to speak. She looked sadly at Laibel. “It’s gorgeous. It’s everything I always wanted, but I don’t need it. I need real security, not symbolic security.”

Laibel ran out of patience. He held up his phone in front of Shira’s face, an inch away from her eyes.

“Look at our checking balance,” he said. Shira gasped.

“We really won?” she whispered. Laibel nodded.

Shira’s hand flew to mouth, then covered her face. The box and ring scattered across the car. “It can’t be, it can’t be, it can’t be.”

Laibel reached down and retrieved the ring while Shira started fanning herself, tears streaming down her cheeks. She took deep, ragged breaths, trying to calm herself down.

“I can’t believe it,” she said finally.

“I know!” Laibel said, ready to get excited.

“It’s insane!”

“Crazy!”

“Did you call a financial planner? Can we pay off your student loans today? We need to set up a trust fund for the kids.”

Laibel felt his earlier joy leech from him. Why couldn’t she just take the ring and say thank you, jump up and down, they’d talk tachlis later?

Shira glanced at the dashboard clock, “Oh, gosh, I must get back to work. We need to talk! I’ll try to be home early today.” She opened the car door. Laibel nodded. Shira climbed out. Laibel sat there a moment longer, gripping the jewelry box tightly. She hadn’t even tried the ring on.

There was a rap on the window. Laibel brightened and lowered the window. Shira’s eyes were softer, her shoulders were rounded, less businesslike. “Can I try on the ring?”

Laibel grinned and opened the box. She lifted the ring gently from its velvet cushion and slipped it onto the ring finger on her right hand. Perfect fit.

“Magnificent,” Shira breathed, flexing her hand to view the ring from different sides, letting the light hit at different angles, creating blinding prisms. Laibel finally smiled again.

“You’re the best,” Shira said. “And a little crazy.” She laughed when she said that, like she appreciated that aspect of him. Laibel felt respected in that moment, he couldn’t remember Shira ever encouraging his quirky spontaneity — they never could afford to. “We’ll talk later,” Shira said, and started walking away again. Laibel sat still again. He was on a high, but there was a low ebb pulling him someplace he couldn’t name.

  

As he exhaled, Laibel felt a mental exhaustion that surprised him. They were driving home after meeting with a financial advisor. Shira was beaming and chatty, her life was squared away.

“I think putting aside $500,000 for each kid, with half in a trust, and the other in index funds, is a good plan. The trust has an interest rate of only around 2.9 percent, and the index fund averages around 7 percent annually, but I like having that balance, just in case. I think the kids will get a good head start, nothing insane, but it’s something. And I hadn’t realized how high the interest rates for your student loans were, it’s a good thing we’re paying it off now—”

Laibel had a headache. They drove past Best Bassar.

“Let’s pick up schnitzel sandwiches for supper,” Laibel suggested, pulling into the parking lot. Shira gave him a look, like he was babbling nonsense.

“What for? I took meatballs out of the freezer this morning. All I have to do it warm it up and make pasta.”

Laibel shrugged sheepishly. “A treat?”

Shira blinked. Laibel couldn’t blame her entirely — they never did takeout spontaneously. They put it in the budget in case of emergency, but the apocalypse had to be nigh for Shira to resort to takeout.

“And what should I do with the meatballs?” Shira was serious; the idea that she wouldn’t use what she prepared was preposterous.

Laibel raised one shoulder. “Save them for tomorrow?” He wasn’t sure why he was pushing. It was obviously not a treat for Shira and was clearly stressing her out right now. “Y’know what, never mind.” Laibel continued driving across the lot to the exit. Shira looked around. She was still processing the treat comment.

“No, wait,” she started, but they were already back on the street and the light at the corner was green.

Once home, Shira thanked Yoni for watching the kids, put up water to boil, and transferred the meatballs to the oven. Laibel disappeared to their bedroom and flung himself onto his bed.

Trust funds, index funds, no student loans, no mortgage, but no takeout. Boring. When they didn’t have money, at least there was purpose in the lack; now Shira’s meatballs — made with lean ground beef because it was cheaper when sold in bulk but dry and rubbery when compacted into pellets for supper — frustrated him. Seriously, couldn’t they eat a normal supper that wasn’t financially maximized?

There was a knock on the door. Yoni popped his head in. “Mommy says supper is ready in ten.” He pulled his head out, closing the door behind him.

He’s a good kid, Laibel thought. He asks for normal stuff, not like Dovid, his younger brother, who was begging for a Segway. Laibel laughed at the thought of Shira buying their kids a Segway — not even in another lifetime.

But why not? They could afford it. The kids hated walking to yeshivah, and Shira hated carpool that early in the morning. And it couldn’t be that crazy a thing; they seemed so ubiquitous. A lot of shuls had even banned them from the premises because they were such a nuisance. It would make the kids happy and Shira’s life easier. Laibel got up, opened his laptop and ordered two Segways from Amazon. Prime is a wonderful thing, he thought, as Shira called everyone for supper.

Laibel ate supper quietly but contentedly, thinking of white, sleek Segways arriving in two days and the look on his boys’ faces. He could finally be that fun, benevolent father he always wanted to be. Even the meatballs seemed tender now.

Later that night while Laibel did market research, Shira came into the room to organize the groceries after her Costco run earlier in the day. She put the Costco receipt down on the desk. “Can you enter this?”

Laibel looked up at her. “Are we still doing that?”

She looked confused. “Yeah, sure, just because we have more money doesn’t mean we shouldn’t know what happens to it. Remember, we make it work for us, not the other way around.”

Laibel shrugged. Entering receipts wasn’t that difficult and if it made Shira happy, he could do that. Reaching into his pocket he pulled out the jeweler’s receipt, unfolded it, and put in on top of the Costco receipt.

“What’s that?” Shira asked, leaning over and picking it up.

“Receipt for your ring.” Laibel said, eyes back on the screen. The room went quiet, no movement, no breathing. A chill crept up his back.

“Did you really pay over fifteen thousand for the ring?” Shira’s voice shook.

“Yes,” he said easily. “Why?”

“Laibel, that’s insane.”

“What?” He looked up at Shira. She was ashen. “Why?”

“That’s like two tuitions. Or more than groceries for the year!”

“Well, if you put it that way, it does sound crazy. Try framing it that we have over seven million in the bank.”

Shira looked like someone had punched her. “Yes, but,” she sputtered. “Fifteen thousand on a ring, it’s just — excessive.”

“Why?” Laibel wasn’t sure if they were arguing or having a discussion.

“Because! Think of what we could buy with that money!”

“But we have a lot of other money. It’s not like it’s a trade-off, ring or groceries or tuition. They’re all covered.”

“But fifteen thousand?!”

“We can easily afford it. And I want you to have it. It’s a gift from me to you. Imagine if I would’ve bought you small pieces of jewelry all the years we were married, you don’t think they might be worth something near this ring?”

“No,” Shira said flatly. Her hands were on her hips. She seemed livid. “I’m not the kind of person who wears a $15,000 ring.”

“No one knows the price. You didn’t think about the price when you put it on.”

“ ’Cuz I don’t know these things. I can’t have people see me wearing a ring like this.”

“I’m really not following you,” Laibel said finally.

“Just because we have money doesn’t mean I’m all of the sudden a spender. It’s just not right.”

“I ordered the boys Segways.” Laibel knew this would escalate things, but Shira was being irrational. They had money, fifteen thousand wasn’t crazy, there were rings at the jeweler for twenty-five, thirty thousand. It was a frum jeweler, people bought them. And for heaven’s sake, it was a gift, for her. Didn’t she get what it meant to him to finally be able gift her something after so many years of forced pragmatism?

“YOU WHAT?” Shira bellowed.

“The boys are dying for them, they’re a great mode of transportation, you won’t have to do early-morning carpool. Everyone’s happy.”

“They’re $400 a piece!”

“WE CAN AFFORD IT!”

“Just because we can afford it doesn’t mean we should buy it! Four hundred dollars on a toy, that’s just bad chinuch! We can afford a cute private island off the coast of a third-world country, maybe we should buy that.”

“If it’ll make us happy, and we fulfill our obligations in other areas, then why not?”

“Because it’s ridiculous!”

“What’s not ridiculous to you? Is there anything you’ve thought about buying if you ever had the money?”

Shira’s eyes narrowed, her lips went thin. “I’m not playing this game now,” she whispered. She reached for her ring finger, pulled off the eternity band, and placed it on top of the receipt. “I can’t wear this. It’s not who I am, or who I want to be.” She stalked out of the room, leaving behind a mess of Costco bulk-sized cereal and her marriage.

  

They weren’t good at long-term fighting, they’d never really done it before, so they pretended it never happened. They each simply continued living in their personal financial reality. The Segways showed up in large brown boxes with ubiquitous blue Amazon Prime tape and the boys rejoiced.

“It’s from me and Mommy,” Laibel said magnanimously. Shira rolled her eyes and left the kitchen before the boys could thank her. The next morning when she knocked on their bedroom door to wake them up for minyan she said, “I’m driving you in 20 minutes, make sure you’re up and dressed.” She heard her sons murmur to each other — something “Segway.”

“You’re not taking those toys to camp,” she said through the door. Her tone gave them no room to protest.

Two days later, when she came home from work, the kids were sitting on the couch with their feet up and laughing.

“Please take your feet off the couch,” she said.

“But, Ma,” Chana protested, “The Roomba might get us then.”

“The what?” Shira said automatically, but as the words came out, she realized they made perfect sense. She looked around for Laibel, but he was conspicuously missing. The Roomba came into view then — it moved like Laibel did when he was tipsy on Purim, turning this way and that, starting in one direction, hitting a wall and shifting course without a bruise. It vacuumed a streak of crumbs the kids had made. Shira bit back a smile. She wouldn’t have to take out the vacuum, and it wouldn’t have to wait until Friday.

But she still swept the kitchen thoroughly.

Then one morning as a harried Shira smeared a row of cream cheese sandwiches for the kids’ lunch, Dovid whined, “Why are you making us cream cheese? Tatty paid for us to get camp lunch for the rest of the summer.”

“What?!” Shira stammered. But there was no need for an explanation. Shira slammed the spreader down on the counter. It ricocheted off the backsplash, hit her sweater, bounced onto her imitation Toms and landed on the floor with a clunk and white smear. Shira seethed, slapped together the sandwiches and froze all but one — lunch for herself for the week, and she hated cream cheese.

But the next morning, Shira hit snooze twice on her alarm. No lunches to make.

  

The only excess Laibel indulged himself in was a new cowhide fur tallis bag. “Good taste,” the guy in the Judaica store said and nodded approvingly while Laibel stroked the blend of orangey-brown and inky black fur. It was $300. He would never have considered spending such a sum just weeks ago. Shira would never approve, that he knew.

When he arrived home he immediately sat down at the computer and recorded the expenditure dutifully under Miscellaneous Non-recurring on their shared Excel spreadsheet. Last week Laibel had increased their clothing budget from $50 a month to $150, and Shira had quietly switched it back. Same happened with food and Yom Tov expenses. Neither said anything to the other; it was a silent battle of wills fought over clicks and cells.

A month into the Cold War, the main wall A/C unit died. Their first floor had an open floor plan, with the air conditioner serving a large area, requiring 20,000 BTU to cool the floor. Shira wanted time to decide.

“It’s not so hot, let’s shop around,” she said while clearing off the supper table. Laibel patted his forehead with a napkin, it came away damp. He picked up a paper plate and fanned himself. Shira continued, “This is probably going to wipe out our emergency fund — an A/C that’s strong enough costs about $1,000. I researched it.”

Laibel snorted, then tried to cover it up as a cough. Shira shot him a look demanding an answer.

“Shira, are you serious? Our $1,000 emergency fund? We have millions in the bank.” Shira gave him a withering glare. “Maybe it’s time we set up a proper emergency fund. We should set aside three to six months of living expenses.”

Shira rolled her eyes. “Fine,” she spat. Laibel smiled inwardly, he’d won that round. But he wanted to do more than buy a new A/C. This, unlike the Roomba and lunch, he wouldn’t do without discussing with Shira. Laibel put down the paper-plate fan and looked toward Shira, who was busy piling dishes in the sink. He waited. She never turned. He cleared his throat. She met his eye, then looked back at the stack of dishes.

“Shira,” he started. She looked at him warily. “I don’t think we should replace the A/C unit.”

She waited for him to continue.

“I want to install central.” Laibel looked directly at Shira when he spoke, though his foot jiggling underneath the table betrayed him.

Shira stopped moving and didn’t talk for a good ten seconds.

“That’s crazy expensive,” she stated.

“I priced it, it’s only around 10k. And it’s not a huge construction job anymore. If they do it ductless it barely makes a mess.”

“Only 10k?” Shira’s voice rose. “Since when is 10k ‘only’?”

“Since we won seven million.”

“So that made 10k lose its value?”

“No, of course not, we just have easier access to it.”

“That doesn’t mean we should use it!”

“So what’s the point in having it?”

That seemed to stump Shira for a moment. She looked away, then rejoined, “It gives you security knowing you have it. But you shouldn’t live big.”

“ ‘Shouldn’t’? Like this is a right and wrong thing? And ‘big’? C’mon, most people have central — no one else wanted to buy this house because it didn’t have central. And we’d have to spend a thousand anyway, might as well get something we like.”

“And pay ten times the price?”

“Shira, you’re being ridiculous, listen to yourself. You want to buy something you hate, just because that’s all you could afford until now. You’re saying no to investing nine thousand in the house. Money you can throw around like confetti.”

Shira crossed arms and met Laibel’s eyes. “You don’t get it,” she said. Laibel threw up his hands. Crumbs from the tablecloth sprayed the air.

“Get what? Explain it to me. Ever since we won you’ve turned so weird about spending money.”

Shira opened her mouth, but her eyes caught something in the corner. She stalked over to the buffet right outside the kitchen.

“What’s this?” she demanded. Laibel grimaced. This was not a good time to be making introductions.

“My new tallis bag?” he said, almost questioning its existence.

“New?”

“Yes.”

“Why did you need a new one?”

Laibel shrugged. He was growing weary of his wife’s need for explanations for his expenditures. The penny counting used to make sense, now it didn’t.

“I didn’t,” he stated.

“So why’d you buy it?” Shira’s voice rose incredulously.

“Because I’ve always wanted one like this,” Laibel asserted, knowing that a want was beyond Shira’s comprehension. How many times had they repeated the questions before each purchase, Do I want this or do I need this, and if I need it, do I need it now?

“But,” Shira sputtered. She dropped the tallis bag. It thudded onto the buffet. “I feel like I don’t know you, Laibel. Like we’re on totally different pages hashkafically.”

“I thought just financially. How is this hashkafah?”

“Because if you don’t need it, you don’t buy it. Be satisfied with your lot.”

“I thought that was a smart budgeting practice, not a value system.”

“Of course budgeting is a value system.”

“Really? Because it was always a means to an end to me.”

“No, it’s much more than that.”

“Ah,” Laibel said sagely. “So spending money is bad, and being frugal is good.”

“Yes!” Shira said, sounding relieved to hear Laibel say something sensible.

“Is money bad?” Laibel posited.

“Yes. I mean, no.”

“Which one is it?”

“You use it for what you need.”

“And you’re not allowed to want?”

“You can want, just don’t actually buy it.”

“That’s insane.”

“Why? We’ve been doing that for the past 12 years.”

“Because we had to. Now we don’t have to!”

“But it’s still right to.”

“Why do you keep making this about right and wrong? We did it for our circumstances. If our parents had supported us, or helped us with a down payment, we wouldn’t have done what we did.”

“But it’s still the right thing.” Shira folded her arms across her chest.

“Shira! All these years, I saw all the people who could spend money freely. I was jealous of them, but I knew I was doing what’s best for me. You’re telling me that with all the money in the world you’ll be a tightfisted cheapskate because money and material items are evil.”

Shira blinked. “I wouldn’t phrase it like that — but yes.”

“But why?” Laibel pleaded. “There are so many things I know you want. I knew exactly what type of eternity band you’d want, but you deny yourself for the sake of denial, not for any real reason. And forget about yourself, you deny me being there for you, and you deny the kids without a clear principle to back it.”

Shira shrugged. “It’s easier to have no money. The default is no. You don’t have to rationalize or think through decisions — they’re not even an option.”

Laibel shook his head, his palms open. “True, but that’s not what we’re discussing here. You’re pretending to be an ascetic monk, clinging to an irrelevant paradigm, for what purpose?”

Shira looked like she was going to burst. “Because it was easier to do it if I thought I was right and everyone else was shallow idiots,” she wailed. Her voice broke.

“So that’s how you coped all these years?”

“Yes.” She averted her eyes.

“But what about the whole ‘live like no one else today so you can live tomorrow like no one else’ thing? What did your ‘tomorrow’ look like if you thought you were all holy for not spending?”

Shira paused. “Honestly? I didn’t think we’d ever finish paying off everything.”

“What do you mean?”

“Frum life is expensive — tuition, housing, camp, bar mitzvahs, weddings, Yom Tov… I just thought we’d live responsibly with little anxiety, and leave our kids more than an over-mortgaged house.”

Laibel’s eyes dimmed. “You never thought we’d save enough, plan well enough, to live a lifestyle that we’d choose, rather than what’s necessary?”

“No,” Shira said bluntly.

“Ouch,” Laibel said. “Had I known that, I’d never have done this. My motivation was always the ‘tomorrow.’ ”

“Like I said, we have different hashkafos.”

“I don’t think yours is a hashkafah. More like a messed-up coping mechanism.”

“Thanks.” Shira seemed to shut down at that comment. “I’m tired,” she said abruptly. “Let’s talk more tomorrow.”

“I was hoping to bring in some HVAC guys tomorrow.”

“Laibel, please,” Shira pleaded. “It can wait another day.”

Laibel fanned himself. For his wife, he could wait.

  

Two sweltering days later, after the kids were in bed, Laibel sat on the deck. It was cooler outside. He drank a beer he had hidden in the basement freezer (Shira wouldn’t approve, water was the only necessary drink). The sliding door opened, and Laibel slipped the beer out of view.

“Leave it,” Shira said quietly. Laibel looked up at her quizzically. The moonlight didn’t suit her. It put her face in sharp relief, and the bags under her eyes and the hollow in her cheeks were highlighted with a haggardness Laibel had never seen before.

Shira pulled up a deck chair alongside Laibel and sat down heavily, giving way to gravity and exhaustion. She looked straight ahead, not meeting her husband’s eyes.

“Was a rough day. I left work late, so I was late to pick up the baby and I had to go to Shoprite today because today was the last day for the tuna sale. By the time I finished, I was exhausted, and I came home to cranky hot kids, who didn’t want to help with supper or watch the baby. The kitchen was so hot, even I didn’t want to be in there. I snapped at the kids, sent Dovid to his room. I tried figuring out why I was so grumpy, it’s not like I don’t have days like this all the time — it’s life.”

Laibel was quiet.

“Any time I was stressed like this, there was always an answer, a larger purpose. ‘I’m saving money with this sale, I’m not spending more on after-hours babysitting, I’m not wasting money on grocery delivery or takeout.’ All my actions revolve around money. Being frugal doesn’t make me better; it makes me focus on money more than the average person, even if it doesn’t end up in something material.”

Laibel nodded.

“And I was a terrible mother today, for what reason? To save ten dollars I don’t need? Sacrifice one ideal for another? You’re right.” Shira paused to let those words sink in. “It’s a means to an end.”

Laibel looked up at the starry sky. He wouldn’t gloat. There was nothing right to say.

Shira shifted in her seat, reached into her skirt pocket, and took out a box.

“Laibel, can you give me the ring again?”

Laibel let his smile break through, took the box, and offered the ring to his wife. She slipped it onto her ring finger and held up her hand to admire.

“Do you want it or do you need it?” Laibel asked. Shira paused, watching the diamonds twinkle alongside the stars.

“Want,” she said finally. “And that’s okay. Because I need you.”

(Originally featured in Calligraphy, Issue 781)

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