| Calligraphy |

Loud and Clear

There were some perks to having a husband who was hearing impaired. I could slam doors without arousing suspicion

"Shaya.”

He didn’t turn around.

“Shaya,” I said louder, and walked a bit closer to where he was standing and slicing peppers.

He finally turned. “Calling me?”

I nodded.

“Sorry, battery’s low.” He put the knife down and pointed to his earpiece.

I waved. No use saying goodbye if he couldn’t hear me.

He resumed cutting and expertly added oil and salt to his salad. “Breakfast?” he asked, pointing to the bowl.

I shook my head and made a gagging motion. To think of all the sunny-side ups and French toast I made him just a couple of months ago. Although this nausea thing was finally getting better. I was more than halfway through!

“At least take this.” With a flourish, he whipped out a cheese Danish. “You need some energy for your day.”

The last few months had taught him a thing or two. I winked and smiled to show my gratitude.

“Bye, Aviva. I’ll meet you at your mother’s tonight, right?”

I nodded. Supper tonight at my mother’s. For the first time ever. On the menu was spaghetti and a vegetable salad of tomatoes, cucumbers, and peppers.

There were some perks to having a husband who was hearing impaired. I could slam doors without arousing suspicion.

  

The cold air whipped my face and blew my sheitel all over the place, but it felt good to walk against the wind. I glanced at my watch. It was 8:25. Dassi was in school already. Too late to call and ask her to upgrade the menu. So what were my options?

I thought of the meals Shaya’s mother served whenever we went there. The appetizers, the roasts, the desserts for the royal new couple.

And my mother would serve spaghetti. Because Wednesday was spaghetti night. It said so in large letters on the erasable calendar on the wall that Bubby and Mommy filled in together every Motzaei Shabbos.

No wonder we never ate there.

We’d been invited, of course, but I had an entire list of reasons why we couldn’t come. First it was because I had to get to know Shaya, and then I was way too nauseous to eat at all. But this week, I had run out of excuses.

Mommy had probably prepared her spaghetti pot this morning before heading to school. The one with the black line, drawn by Bubby with a Sharpie, to indicate exactly how much water to fill it with. I quickened my pace. My only option was to get takeout. Maybe pick up some lo mein.

Urban Pediatrics came into view. The parking lot had a couple of cars already, which meant a full waiting room before the day had even begun. I swung open the back door, quickly changed into scrubs, and turned on the lights a moment before Dr. Lazar walked in.

From then on, all thoughts of supper receded as I swabbed throats, checked temperatures, and filled in growth charts with experienced precision.

Finally it was 11:30, the last appointment before my lavish cheese Danish lunch, when I entered exam room B.

“Good morning.” I loaded the chart on the laptop. “And who do we have here today?”

I looked up and found myself staring straight into the face of Mrs. Green, my ninth grade mechaneches. Ugh. Oh well, meeting people I know is par for the course at Urban. Usually, I loved it. Let them all see that I’d made it.

But teachers were a different story. They knew my mother from the office all too well. They had all treated me with the same practiced pity.

Mrs. Green looked tired. The baby must’ve been awake all night. For some reason, I gloated.

“He doesn’t look too good,” I said, all business. “Let’s get his height and weight, and the doctor will be in shortly.” I took the baby, who promptly burst into hysterical sobs.

I knew how to do this. With a few tickles and pats, he calmed sufficiently for me to do my job. But Mrs. Green wasn’t smiling with gratitude. She was quietly staring at me, from my sheitel to my scrubs to my shoes, confusion on her face.

“What are his symptoms?” I asked.

“Oh!” She suddenly got it. “Aviva Gross! Is that really you?”

“Uh huh.” I placed her son on the examining table. “What are his symptoms?”

But she was having none of it. Instead, she did the whole spiel — I can’t believe how quickly my students grow up, blah, blah, blah.

Especially this student. The nebby one whose mother cut shapes out of colored paper in the front office as a chesed job. You know, the one that came from a dysfunctional family. But baruch Hashem their grandmother took good care of them all these years.

“Aviva, you look good in this uniform.” She smiled. I could practically hear her thinking, Who would have believed it?

“If I still make it to school today, I’ll give your mother regards,” she continued.

Because she had to mention my mother now, in case I forgot my humble beginnings.

“Sure,” I said.

“Your mother is so nice,” she continued. “The girls looove her.” The same practiced, honeyed voice she used back in ninth grade. “It’s a treat to go to the office just to see her.”

And make fun of her all recess. Day in, day out. Mrs. Gross… Mrs. Gross… with the crooked nose… is gross.

The torture session wasn’t over yet. “I don’t think I made it to your wedding. When was it?”

“November.”

“Oh, he was born in November.” She pointed to her baby. “Otherwise I would definitely have stopped in to wish your mother mazel tov.”

Chesed of the day.

“Who did you marry, again?”

“Loebl. From Monsey.”

“Loebl?” she echoed. “Uh… related to Reuven Loebl?”

“Yes. His son.”

“Wow! Aviva, that’s so… nice.”

“It is,” I said, finally meeting her eyes. But don’t worry, Mrs. Green, they didn’t take Mrs. Gross’s daughter for no reason.

Mrs. Gross… Mrs. Gross…

“Your son’s symptoms, please,” I said very, very firmly over the voices ringing in my head.

  

I was next door at Mechel’s ordering the lo mein when my phone rang. It was Tatty.

“Hi, Aviva’la,” he boomed. “Can I pick you up from work? I’ll be passing your office.”

“No. No, Ta, I’m on the way home already.” That’s all I needed, a lumbering minibus pulling up at Urban. For me.

“Where are you?” he asked.

“Where are you?” I asked, just to make sure he wasn’t here yet.

“I just finished delivering sandwiches to Mount Sinai’s Bikur Cholim pantry.”

“Thanks for offering, but I’m almost at your house already.” The line was moving, and I was next. “See you, Ta.”

I paid for my package and exited the store. Who would eat the lo mein? Not me, and definitely not Ma. Wednesday wasn’t lo mein day. And lo mein was made out of spaghetti. We couldn’t eat spaghetti and spaghetti. I was suddenly too exhausted to move. A cheese Danish apparently wasn’t sufficient for a full day on my feet.

I dragged myself all the way to my parents’ house dreaming of Tatty’s minibus.

As soon as I got inside, I stashed the bag in the front coat closet.

“Hey, Aviva’la the nurse, is that you?” Ma called.

I closed the closet door and headed to the kitchen. I plopped onto a chair in a very un-nurse-like move. “I’m exhausted, Mommy.”

“Of course, dear. I’ll bring you water.”

Mommy handed me a cup. “Aviva, I have to finish setting the table. It’s 6:07, Shaya will be here in 13 minutes.”

And 33-and-a-half seconds.

“I’ll help you,” I said, getting up from my seat. She was forming little pockets with the napkins and inserting a fork and spoon into each one.

“I’m making it fancy tonight,” she said, “and no helping! Bubby reminded me not to let you help.” It was no use insisting. Mommy could get pretty stubborn, especially with Bubby in the picture.

Dassi pranced into the kitchen when the 13 minutes were almost up.

“Vivs, great to see you!” Ah… there’s nothing like a sister. Especially one who calls you Vivs.

She mock-hugged me and winked while staring at my middle.

“Hey.” I wagged my finger. Spaghetti notwithstanding, it was good to be home.

“Well, your skirt is getting tighter,” she said with a grin. I couldn’t argue with that.

“It’s great having you for supper!” she sang. “We hardly get to see the hoity-toity nurse.”

“The hoity-toity nurse is taking you shopping for camp next Sunday,” I said as every limb in my body protested. “Let’s go to the mall.”

“Oh, thanks Vivs, but Mommy is taking me tomorrow after school. Right, Ma?”

Mommy looked at the erasable calendar on the fridge.

Argh. Here we go again.

“Right. Tomorrow, Thursday, at 4:50 when you finish school, we’ll go to the mall for two hours. Bubby is coming along.”

“No!” I shouted.

They both stared at me. But Mommy would not take Dassi shopping. Not now, when I was married and able to take her. And not with Bubby!

“I mean, I’ll take her. It’s… too hard for you, Ma. You work all day.”

“You also work,” Dassi said, “and we made plans already.”

Was there accusation in Dassi’s eyes? She seemed to be doing this on purpose. Why was she so intent on keeping me out?

“Okay. Maybe I can join all of you?” I looked uncertainly from Mommy to Dassi. “Can we go a bit later? I also need some stuff. Maternity clothes, maybe.” Why was I begging? She should be jumping for joy that I was willing to take her.

I would not let Dassi arrive at camp the way I did. Not now that I had a last name like Loebl and a nursing degree. “Dassi, you have to come with me! I’ll get you real cute stuff.”

Mommy’s face clouded over. “Dassi, you want to go with Aviva’la?”

“I want to go with both of you,” Dassi said loyally.

The 13 minutes were finally up. The minibus roared into the driveway just as the last pocket was placed at Dassi’s seat.

“Hello, everyone,” Tatty called from the doorway. He entered the kitchen, followed by Shaya. “Look who we have here! My choshuve couple.”

“Hello,” Shaya said. He smiled at me and Ma. “Tatty picked me up from kollel. He called to offer me a ride on his way home.”

Aha, so Reuven Loebl’s son just had limo service on a Chai V’Chesed minibus. Epic.

“Mmm… smells good in here, Mommy,” Shaya said. “Aviva must’ve learned how to cook from you.”

Mommy beamed. I turned crimson. I haven’t made spaghetti since my wedding.

“I have a surprise, Shaya,” Mommy whispered loudly. Shaya was reading Mommy’s lips with full attention. “For my eidem.”

I waited anxiously, hoping it wasn’t the napkin pockets.

It wasn’t. “Mashed potatoes!” she said triumphantly. She looked at both of us.

“Yum!” Shaya said instantly. “How did you know that’s my favorite?”

Maybe he couldn’t hear, but he could taste. And he hated mashed potatoes.

Soon the plates were brought out. They went on the right side of the napkin pockets. Each plate had three neat piles: mashed potatoes, spaghetti, and vegetable salad.

Gourmet. The only thing missing was a heaping pile of rice.

“Ma, how do you make the mashed potatoes so soft?” Shaya asked as he removed a spoon from the napkin.

Mommy launched into a lengthy explanation on mashed potatoes. Good, intelligent conversation. Only I noticed Shaya delicately hiding a spoonful in his napkin as soon as Mommy turned. I discreetly handed him my plate, and he got rid of another chunk. I hoped no one would notice his portion shrinking even before the meal began.

I suddenly had a brainstorm. Maybe I could simply ask Mommy to add some chicken or meat next time.

I scanned the table. Tatty was still washing up, and if I spoke quietly, Shaya wouldn’t hear me. And Dassi, she would hear me even from Mars. It was worth a shot.

“Hey, Ma. You know, Shaya likes chicken and meat. Maybe next time I can come and help you prepare some?”

“Chicken?” Mommy looked puzzled. “I can’t make chicken, Aviva’la. It might make you nauseous!”

If there was anything that made me nauseous, it was this.

Tatty joined us at the table. His blue shirt and glasses sported stains. But his hands were clean. Mommy reminded him every day.

He took in the scene with pleasure. “We have special food today because of you. Why don’t you eat with us more often?” he asked. “I also brought something special for the meal. I have some tuna sandwiches left over from today’s deliveries.”

Sandwiches. And I thought the rice was missing.

But Shaya sat calmly, reaching for his fork, ready to tackle his spaghetti. There was no hint of cynicism in his eyes. In fact, he seemed to be thoroughly enjoying himself.

Maybe if my father was the one with an immaculate white shirt and silk tie, and my mother was the one with the Little Marc Jacob perfume and Chanel scarf, I could also swing it.

  

My bed was piled high with clothes that still had their tags on, but the suitcase on the floor was woefully empty. I held up the silver top for the hundredth time. To take or not to take? Should I push it one more Shabbos or not?

For heaven’s sake, there were hundreds of women walking around in maternity clothes. Why was I making such a big deal out of it?

Shaya already knew that packing to go to his parents for Shabbos was an all-night affair. The deliberations were endless. Was it my fault that a Shabbos seudah at his parents’ was more of an event than a seudah?

My phone rang. Call from Dassi’s Cell, the caller ID sang.

“Vivs, d’ya know anything about a container of rotten something in the front coat closet?” Dassi asked.

“Rotten what?” I folded the silver top and placed it on the maybe pile.

“Rotten SOMETHING!” she said.

“Hmmm?”

“Are you listening?” She was annoyed.

I picked up a black tunic. Maybe this could work?

“Hmmm?”

“Hmmm. There’s something rotten in the coat closet! Something really disgusting in an Urban bag!”

The lo mein. I dropped the tunic.

“Hello?”

“Just dump it, Dassi. It doesn’t matter.”

“Vivs! Are you crazy? The house smells gross for a few days already. Now I finally find the culprit, and you want me to just dump it? Tell me what it is, and what it’s doing in our closet!”

Gross… Mrs. Gross is gross…

“Just forget it!”

“Oh,” she said slowly and deliberately. “I should forget about it. After searching the whole house for days and finally calling Bubby to come help me find the smell.”

“It was lo mein.”

“Lo mein? What was it doing in the closet?”

I didn’t say anything.

“Why?” she asked quietly. “Because spaghetti won’t cut it for a Loebl?”

She caught on quickly. “No. It won’t. Okay?”

“Have it your way, Aviva Loebl. Now we have a disgusting bag to deal with. And besides, I don’t think Shaya hates our family the way you do.”

Suddenly, I just had to ask her straight out. Why didn’t she care? How come she was cool with prancing through the school hallways with Mommy? Why was she fine with Tatty’s dirty shirts and Bubby controlling our family?

“Dassi,” I said slowly, “doesn’t it ever bother you… you know… the way Tatty and Mommy… are? Don’t you get it?”

She was quiet for a few seconds. “I’m not dumb, Vivs.” She sighed. “I can hear. I can see. I understand. But I don’t care! They’re my parents, and I just accepted it a long time ago.”

She paused, then added quietly, “But you’re different.”

“I’m not different! I love them too.”

“But?” she prompted.

“But… why won’t you let me take you shopping?” “It’s okay, Vivs. Thanks. Really. But I’m okay. I decided a long time ago, everyone knows Tatty and Mommy anyway. What are we hiding?”

Tears blurred my vision. I gathered up all the clothes on my bed and dumped everything into the suitcase. It made no difference what I wore. Everyone knows Tatty and Mommy anyway.

Shaya walked in and surveyed the mess on the bed and in the suitcase. He also noticed my tears.

“What happened? Are you okay?”

I nodded. Tatty never understood nuances, and Mommy never nodded if she meant to say no. But Shaya knew better than to accept it.

“My mother?” he asked.

I shook my head, then nodded again.

“Yes or no?” he asked.

“Maybe,” I answered.

“What did she do this time?” he asked, sighing.

“Nothing. I just don’t know what to wear on Shabbos!”

“But didn’t you just spend like a million dollars on new maternity clothes?” He looked at the suitcase piled high with unfolded clothes. Men.

I softened my tone. “I’m just nervous about wearing new stuff at your mother’s house, that’s all.”

“Well, she did offer to shop with you last week,” he said rhetorically.

“No one goes shopping with their mother-in-law for maternity clothing, for sure not the first time.”

“I know, I know. All these rules…” he said. “As if it helps.”

“Yeah, I’ll be the neb no matter what.”

“Come on, Aviva. Whatever you wear will be beautiful,” he said loyally. He looked tired.

“It won’t!” I said, tears leaking from my eyes. “I never know the right thing to do is! I’m just a second-class citizen!”

“And what’s wrong with being a second-class citizen?” he asked.

“I want to be normal, that’s what.” I was on a rant. “And where will I go after the baby? My mother can’t help me!”

“What has that got to do with this?” Shaya asked.

“Everything! I just feel like I don’t have anyone to do the things a mother is supposed to be doing.”

“Supposed to? Says who? Besides, you take care of babies every day!”

“It’s not the same thing!”

Shaya looked almost amused by the conversation, and I had a feeling that if I wasn’t crying, he would be laughing. I guess when you try reasoning with a pregnant woman about her mother-in-law, there’s no way to win.

I emptied the suitcase and started all over again.

  

I learned something new when I married a Loebl: Kiddush is the most important Shabbos meal. I was determined to get it right.

Last night hadn’t worked out too well. My sheitel was softly curled. My mother-in-law’s was straight and sharp. So was my sister-in-law Riki’s.

I hadn’t had a chance to buy a new robe yet, so I wore my new cream maternity top to the Friday night meal. It was the wrong choice, of course. Everyone else wore robes.

My mother-in-law commented delicately, “Aviva, your top is beautiful, but won’t you feel more comfortable in a robe?”

To lie or not to lie?

“I didn’t have a chance to buy a new one yet.” I knew my face was red.

“That makes sense,” she said. “I don’t know how you do it, working such long hours.”

I studied her face, trying to divine her intent. Did it really make sense? Was it normal? Or was I hopeless?

I could see her mind working. “Maybe we could go out on Sunday to get one for you, nisht oif Shabbos geredt. Maybe Riki will come along too, she knows what’s in style.”

Quickly, I made a mental list of things I would wear on Sunday. I had the handbag she bought me, the beige flats, and the hunter green tunic. Not bad, even next to Riki.

I hoped.

But today, to Kiddush, I would finally do everything right. It was definitely an outfit affair, especially with the Klangs, friends of my in-laws, invited.

Problem was, the black dress looked like a garbage bag on me when I put it on. So I committed a second epic sin in one Shabbos and wore the cream top again. Well, you gotta pick your poison.

I entered the dining room awkwardly and tried not to gawk at the setup. The chandelier glowing in the center made the chargers and cloth napkins sparkle. On the buffet was a lavish spread of cake, sushi, and kugel.

Of course, the cake was just for the men. Women didn’t eat cake in public. I made that mistake last time.

There was an entire platter of tempura sushi. I had mentioned last time that I liked it, and my mother-in-law was nice enough to remember.

I stood awkwardly at the side while my mother-in-law made a show of telling the Klangs about her special daughter-in-law, the nurse. But as soon as Mrs. Klang asked for my maiden name, my mother-in-law’s smile froze.

But I could play the game.

“Oh, I’m a Gross girl. Not the Gross you know. I only have one sister, and my father isn’t from here.”

He’s from far away. Brooklyn.

My mother-in-law relaxed. Mrs. Klang turned to her. “She’s really something, your daughter-in-law. A pretty girl.” She glanced at my stomach and winked at my mother-in-law.

Conversation flowed, and I stayed quiet. They spoke about the dinner they were coordinating, the new restaurant that just opened, and the sushi they were sampling.

I glanced at Shaya. He was also off to the side.

I walked over to him. He looked relieved. “Let’s take a walk,” he said.

We slipped out of the house, and I finally breathed easy.

“Can’t stand these kiddushim,” he complained. “Every time I’m here, the wine gets more expensive and the guests hang around a bit longer. How will I eat the seudah after all this?”

He was quiet for a long time. I’d learned by now that this was the way he let off steam.

“It’s hard for me,” he said suddenly. “I like staying home in our apartment. No pressure. No people looking at me all Shabbos to check out how Loebl’s deaf son is doing. You know?”

I nodded. I knew. I was the deaf son’s wife, after all.

We continued walking. Apparently, post-Kiddush walks were also part of the deal. The streets were full of strolling couples. This society thing was a science. They should give a handbook for everyone trying to learn the rules. I smiled to myself.

“What’s the joke?” Shaya asked. With Shaya, I couldn’t even smile without him noticing. He was so used to lip-reading that it was hard to get away with anything.

“I was thinking that they should have some sort of manual,” I said.

“A manual? For what?”

“A handbook with all these rules you must follow. Like when you must take a walk, what you’re allowed to eat and what to wear.”

He didn’t appreciate my joke. “I don’t think so. I think these rules are crazy.”

And I’m working so hard to follow them! At least the ones I’ve mastered.

“It’s like you become a slave to the rules,” he said seriously.

I’d take this type of slavery anytime.

“Besides, it’s all a show,” Shaya continued. “Do you really think their lives are perfect?”

He was waiting for an answer, but I didn’t have one.

We turned around and started walking toward the house. I could see he wanted to share more, but he was hesitating.

I was terribly curious to hear more. “I don’t think their lives are perfect. Just more perfect than the way I grew up.”

Shaya stopped walking, “That’s not true.” He looked at me. “There’s something special about just being who you are.”

  

Something was wrong. The mauve-and-white wallpaper swam before my eyes. I tried to focus. I was in my in-laws’ guest room, and the clock read past midnight. I tried sitting up.

“Nooo,” I moaned. It wasn’t the pizza I’d had for Melaveh Malkah. Adrenaline and panic coursed through me.

“Shaya,” I whispered. “Shaya! Wake up.” It was no use. His earpiece was off.

“Shaya!” I frantically pulled his covers. He sat up. “Shaya! The baby. Something’s wrong!” He couldn’t lip-read in the dark, but my wild gestures were enough.

Within minutes, the circular driveway was full of Hatzolah vehicles, lights flashing.

The next hours were a blur of pain and noise.

And then there was silence. The silence of finality. Of dreams whisked away in a flurry of doctors and procedures.

  

“Oy, Aviva… What can I say? These things happen,” Shaya’s mother said. “It’s hard. You know, the first one. But you know… usually it’s because there was a problem with the baby. It wouldn’t have been healthy. That’s what you have to realize. In a way it’s even a brachah. It’s harder to have a sick baby. Imagine having a retarded baby. Or a handicapped one.”

Or a hearing-impaired one who has to marry a Gross girl.

“Right now it feels like the end, but you’ll see, you’re young, you’re healthy, Hashem has a lot of good things waiting for you. You’ll get over it, and you’ll have more.”

Get over it? Like, “Hello, everyone, my baby is gone forever. But don’t worry, I’m over it.” I nodded mutely, not daring to answer.

“You there, Aviva?”

I made a noise.

“Right now you have to take care of yourself. You have to rest up, eat well, let yourself heal. I’ll order you a breakfast to the hospital, something fresh and filling. Just chin up, and don’t let it get to you,” she said.

I chinned down. Don’t let it get to you. I covered my face with the thin, pilled hospital blanket and let it get to me. I sobbed like I’d never sobbed before.

I’d finally allowed Shaya to go home to daven and shower. It had been a mistake. I needed him here. Images of Doonas and cream maternity tops swam before my eyes. But it’s better than having a sick baby.

My throat was dry from crying so much, but I just couldn’t stop. How could so many dreams evaporate so quickly?

The door opened and a blonde nurse walked in.

“Congratulations! And how are we today?” She scribbled her name on the white board. “I’m Denise, and I’ll be your nurse today.”

Congratulations?

I was in the maternity ward. But come on, weren’t they briefed before they started their rounds?

“I didn’t have a baby.”

“Ohhh! That’s too bad,” she crooned. She consulted her laptop. “That’s right! My mistake.”

I closed my eyes as the tears started again.

She came closer to my bed. “I’m so sorry.” Same croon. “Oh, honey, that’s tough. But there’s always next time.”

Sure. Big deal. Just do it all over again. Who cares that my baby died?

She emptied the awful yellow pitcher on the little table and refilled it. “You know, I work here a long time. These things happen, but at the end, everyone gets their happiness. You’re young, aren’t you?”

I felt so old.

“You’re gonna be back soon with a bundle of joy. I just know it.”

Did she expect me to pump my fist with joy? I turned to the wall, spent. How would I ever recover?

When the door opened again, I didn’t bother looking up. Let Denise, or my mother-in-law, or Shaya, or whoever, wait for next time.

Whoever was very quiet. Until I heard wracking sobs.

I turned around. Mommy was standing there, sobbing. Her arms hung limply at her side. She didn’t have a fancy lunch or a bag or even words. No classy, gift-wrapped perfume. Not even tissues to wipe her eyes and nose. She just stood there looking at me and cried.

I couldn’t bear it.

“Mommy?”

But she could not be consoled.

“Avival’a,” she whispered, “you lost your baby.” She continued crying. “Your baby, your baby.” She repeated it over and over again as she walked closer to my bed. “Oy! Your baby!”

Mommy was here with me. Mommy knew.

I followed her every move until her arms were around me. 

(Originally featured in Calligraphy, Issue 830)

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