He wanted to change their marriage, but her heart had frozen long ago
Chava sits at the desk in Bella’s old bedroom, reviewing quarterly statements. The desk lamp illuminates her papers. She hears muted sounds coming from another room, and knows Dov is awake. Glancing at her watch, she sees there’s time to do some laundry before she leaves for work. She crosses the hallway to her laundry room.
She’s pairing socks when she senses a presence, and looks up. Dov is standing at the door, blazer over his arm.
“You came home late last night,” he says. Dov had been sleeping when she came in.
“It’s busy at work,” said Chava. She could explain, but decides it’s not worth the effort.
“I wanted to talk to you about the summer,” Dov’s voice is muffled by the washer. “I thought we could take a trip, in honor of our 35th.”
She doesn’t think the last 35 years deserve much of a celebration. But the suggestion of this trip, at this time, seems part of a larger campaign on Dov’s part. She thinks of the flowers he brought home on Monday and the little ways he’s noticed her the last few months.
It’s not just her he’s noticing. He seems determined to make amends to all the people he’s injured over the years — including their daughter, Bella, who’s been receptive. Chava, less so. She wondered if Dov had the right, after all the hurt he’d caused, to try to make a change.
She decided he did have that right, but it didn’t mean she had to respond to it.
“I don’t know if I can fit it in,” she says.
He clears his throat. “It’s been a while since we went away together.”
“Now isn’t a good time.” She holds a single sock and hunts for its mate among the laundry. ”I spoke to Rachel yesterday. She said Vistas needs a fund manager in Miami.”
She drapes the sock over the side of the laundry basket. “I want to look into that position. I’d be good at it.”
“Twelve hundred miles is a long commute.” Dov laughs.
Chava doesn’t. She pushes her shoulders back, feels steel in her heart as she meets Dov’s eyes. “What if I wouldn’t commute?”
After a pause, Dov starts tapping the doorjamb with an unreadable expression. “Let’s say you get the job. How does that work?” he asks.
The tiled floor is cold under her stockinged feet, and she turns away from him, walks back into Bella’s room. He follows her as she gathers papers from the desk. He stands in the middle of the room, his hands at his sides. He seems far away.
“I’d get a place in Miami for the week, and come back here for Shabbos. Or you could come down for Shabbos.”
“This isn’t where I imagined we’d be.”
She knows why he’s trying. She can even understand, but too much has happened between them. Or, maybe, not enough happened. It doesn’t matter. She doesn’t want to think about it now.
“I didn’t either,” she say. “But here we are. I’m meeting Rachel today.”
“No, Chava, I’m serious. I hoped you’d be taking on less work now, not more.”
She draws in a deep breath and thinks back to when she did take on less work: when Dov couldn’t find time to go to the park on Sunday, to go out for date night, to join family Melaveh Malkahs; when he couldn’t make time, unless it was convenient for him, for his work schedule. It had nothing to do with prioritizing her or Bella. It had stung at first, but she’d shifted her priorities to match his. Now he’s been shifting his priorities, but she isn’t.
“I don’t want less work,” she says as she brushes by him to the hallway. She notices his skin tightening around his cheekbones.
“What about us?” he says, and his eyes focus on some distant point in the flat gray sky.
She pauses for a heartbeat, then she walks away.
His expression irritates her as she waits for her coffee to brew.
For years, work was as substantial as a living, breathing family member. She remembers giving birth to Bella during graduate school, and missing only two days of classes. Dov was also in school then, studying for his accounting degree, and they’d been like two ships in the night — engrossed in their studies and tending a newborn.
His face had that hollow look back then too. I wish I’d have some time to sit and take this in, he’d said. Her stomach twisted, but she didn’t say anything.
Even though that was more than 25 years ago, it sticks in her mind. Don’t wish you’d have more time, she remembers having thought. Find the time.
But as time passed, he seemed to have less of it: yet still expected his wife, his family, to remain a constant, unmoving in reaction to his actions.
She remembers how their homework would be strewn over the dining room table, and each Friday, she’d sweep the papers into two separate piles and place them in the sideboard, trading places with the tablecloth and challah board. She remembers the stress of balancing family and school, and later a job: But she mostly remembers the empty hours and loneliness that propelled her to school, to a place she could pour the energy she thought she’d reserve for her marriage. Then the satisfaction of making it in her field eclipsed her original intention.
Dov’s trying to change things now. His brother Shimmy’s death, earlier this year, shook him. He’s lucky that Bella forgave him, but all she ever wanted was her father’s attention, his time. She’s getting that now, and for her, it’s enough.
It’s different for Chava. It’s true, that for so long, she also wanted Dov’s presence and his focus. And if she allows herself to feel for a moment, Dov’s little gestures give her a dash of hope; but if she acts on it, it means dipping into feelings she’s closed off long ago.
It would risk too much, opening all that again. Besides, Chava can’t just let go of the past, of all the times she felt alone.
She takes a deep breath as she starts her car, and tries to erase the image of Dov’s long face. This isn’t what he imagined we’d be, but this is us, she thinks as she backs out of the driveway.
She glances at the time. It’s late, she thinks as she turns onto Coney Island Avenue.
Ten minutes after she arrives, Sarah, her assistant, pokes her head into the office. “Reminding you about your meeting with Rachel,” she says.
Rachel’s office is down the hall, and Chava looks around as she steps inside. She’s been here a thousand times before, consulting on client portfolios and investment strategies. Her eyes run over Rachel’s stuffed bookcase and Escher prints.
“You know you’ll have to move to take this position,” says Rachel, after Chava sits in the chair opposite Rachel’s desk.
“I understand, and I’m prepared to do that.”
Rachel sits back in her own chair, and looks at Chava. She reaches for her coffee, kept perpetually warm by the mug warmer one of her clients bought her last Chanukah. Chava tried it once. All it did was make her coffee taste stale.
“It’s going to be your department, essentially. You’ll really need to give it everything.” She sips her coffee.
“You know me — I’ve been giving my all for years. The challenge of a new place is pulling me.”
Rachel places her mug back on the warmer. “I wonder about you, Chava,” she says. “Why do you want this?”
“I always thought we’d eventually move to Miami. And also — this job — I really love what I do.”
Rachel looks at Chava appraisingly. “No. With you, there’s a drive that’s more than that.” She says this thoughtfully, as if she’s giving voice to something she’s considered long before. “Right now, your life, your family is here. It’s almost, I don’t know… like you need this.”
It’s interesting to hear this from Rachel: They’re work friends, and while they’ll go out for lunch or chat in the staff room, Chava had never confided in her. Chava hesitates. She isn’t tempted to tell Rachel about the loneliness or resentment; she only wonders how much Rachel’s guessed at. Her life looks good from the outside, and Dov is right — most people would be slowing down.
She stops and thinks before she answers Rachel. For a moment, her mind dances around the possibility of telling Rachel she needs more time before she decides. What if the reality of living apart isn’t what she imagined? Maybe she should give Dov a second chance. On the other hand, it isn’t hard to remember Dov’s late nights at work, the trips she took alone with Bella — the times she felt like she was the single parent. It doesn’t feel like she’s sacrificing much to do something she loves.
“Rachel, you’re overthinking,” Chava says lightly, as she tries to banish the cobwebs of memories. “I’ll book tickets today so that I can be there next week and get a better feel for the position.”
Rachel nods and Chava stands up, leaves the office, closing the door quietly and firmly.
They‘re in the car on the way to the Eisen wedding, sitting on the Belt in a sea of red brake lights. Chava’s in the passenger seat, holding her phone and answering emails. Next to her, Dov shifts uncomfortably. He hates driving.
“Did you get my texts today?” He sounds casual, but she hears the entreating note beneath the question.
She’d seen them, but there had been no time to answer.
“Yes,” she says shortly.
He taps the steering wheel. “I met Dean Farkas from GSC today. We had a staff meeting. He says they’re looking for someone new to chair the business department. There’s so much you could do in that position.”
Chava looks out the window, chewing the inside of her cheek. Water on one side, apartment buildings on the other. It’s incongruous, she thinks. With better planning, this could’ve been a beautiful neighborhood. Instead, it’s depressing.
She can’t remember the last time traffic was this bad. They’re at a standstill.
He really doesn’t want me to go, she thinks, and it makes something inside crumble. When they were young, she’d have given anything to have him say what he’s saying now.
“You really don’t want me to pursue the Vistas position.”
He turns his head toward her, makes brief eye contact before turning his head back to the road. In the waning light, the headlights paint his face red, and he looks sunburned. “Compare the two opportunities. This one’s better.”
For a moment, she feels suspended in time. She’s been here before. Before she gave up trying to change Dov.
She remembers when she stopped trying.
Bella had been acting out in school. Chava was almost certain it was in response to Dov’s absence at home. Bella had been cutting class and refusing to complete her schoolwork. The principal requested a meeting with Chava and Dov. Chava hoped that Dov would connect the dots at this meeting, realize the importance of the role he’d promised to play when he became a husband, then a father. Dov had promised he’d be there, but at the last minute he called to tell her he had a scheduling conflict, a meeting with an IRS agent, and he couldn’t make it.
“You promised!” Chava had hissed into the phone, angry. “You said you scheduled it!”
“There’s nothing I can do about it,” Dov had said. “And this is just a meeting with a principal. What’s the big deal?”
“This is your daughter we’re talking about!” She had fought to keep her voice down. It hurt her to think of how Bella waited for Dov, and the thought that Bella had been acting out because Dov was never home made her temper finally reach a boil. “That makes it a big deal! Get someone else to handle the IRS and meet me at the school. I’ll tell them you’re running a few minutes late.”
“Chava, I can’t. You don’t need me there.”
Then he hung up.
She barely remembers the meeting. She’d been arguing with Dov inside her head the entire time. And yet, she’d also hoped he’d come at the last second. He didn’t.
Later that night she waited for him to come home. She couldn’t concentrate on the report she was preparing, nor on the book she’d been wanting to read for a while. The clock hands were inches from midnight when he came home.
“How could you?” she’d asked him, clenching her teeth to stop her anger from spilling over.
“How could I what?” he’d answered smoothly.
“You missed our meeting at school. About our daughter. And you left me to do it alone.” She took a deep breath to steady her voice.
“Don’t get so dramatic.”
“You think I’m overreacting? You need to be there for us!”
“I am there for us. I’m doing this for us,” he’d said.
And then he’d walked right past her.
This wasn’t even new, but another one of a series of countless, repetitive conversations — could she even call them arguments? — with the same frustrating end, and all it produced was anger and hurt. And in that moment, when the emotional pain became so physically diminishing, she couldn’t bear it any longer.
As she’d looked at her husband’s retreating back, she realized she could stop the pain if she stopped trying to change Dov. Right then, she decided never to allow herself to feel vulnerability again. The only way was to let go of her expectations. She always imagined hearts breaking, but that was when she realized that not all hearts break — some freeze.
In the car, Chava sighs. The memory makes her feel resentful, and she’s too tired for an argument. She reaches for her bag, and runs her fingers over the embroidered surface.
“You’re forcing me to choose,” she says.
Dov’s eyes are locked on the road. Ahead, the traffic seems to clear, and they speed up. “It’s just another option. I thought this would be a better one.”
They’re both quiet, and Chava can hear the rush of the tires. She glances at her watch. They’re going to be late to this wedding. Her fingers still stroke her bag. She wonders if he’ll mention Shimmy, his sorrow for the choices he made.
“It’s not a matter of choice,” Chava said. “This is who you are, who I am, who we’ve become.”
From within, a voice she’s hushed long ago asks, Do we have to stay this way?
“Tell him not to call,” she says, hushing it again.
Dov texted late the next afternoon.
We need to talk. I got us a reservation at Barnea.
She’d wanted to try out the restaurant for a while now; he knew she wouldn’t say no. Her heart isn’t in it, though; she’s tired after last night’s wedding, and she doesn’t think she’ll be able to make the kind of meaningless small talk she normally does with Dov.
She and Dov have a table in a quiet corner, with a good view of the other tables, the black-and-white checked floor, and the bulb-studded ceiling. The conversation of other diners is a comforting din.
“Lots of interesting choices,” Dov says as he looks up from the menu and smiles at her.
A pang ricochets in her rib cage as she thinks of the tickets she’d booked earlier.
Their food comes. Brick-pressed chicken for Chava and filet de boeuf for Dov. The waiter arranges the plates, and then slides away to attend the next table.
Dov clears his throat. “Why do you want to go out of state for a job?” He asks this as if a day hadn’t elapsed since the end of their previous conversation. “Or is it something else?”
“What else would it be about?” she asks as she stabs the chicken with her fork. Laughter erupts at the next table.
“Remember that trip Shimmy always wanted to take with me?” Dov asks.
How could she forget? Shimmy was always after Dov about taking a trip to Yellowstone, to hike and see Old Faithful. They’d read a book about it as kids, and dreamed of visiting. Shimmy never gave up, and every year he’d ask Dov, “So this year, maybe Yellowstone?”
“Let it go,” Chava had told Shimmy, but he never did. They ‘d booked and canceled tickets more times than she could count.
“Shimmy’s death left me with so many regrets.” Dov’s voice is low. “I don’t want more. I really want to slow down and spend some more time together.”
For a second her breath catches in her throat, and something unfamiliar twists in her chest, but she tamps it down. She places her fork and knife at the edge of her plate, lays her hands flat on the heavy tablecloth. “When has spending time together ever been a priority for you? Forget the past. Most nights you come home later than me. You’re a partner at your accounting firm, you teach at GSC. Are you planning to cut down your hours? Or is it only me who needs to cut back and slow down?”
He clears his throat again and scratches his cheek. She wonders if he’ll be honest with her.
“If you go away, we’ll have less time together,” he finally says.
“I don’t think taking a job in another state will feel any different to you than the way things are now,” she says, tone cool and even. “We’d see each other on weekends, and maybe take a vacation or two a year. Same as now.”
“I want us to have more,” he says. “We have the time for that now.” He gestures to their cozy table for two. “We won’t have this if you’re in Miami. We won’t even be able to have dinner together at home.”
She knows Shimmy’s death is prompting his sentimentality, but she wants to tell him that after 35 years of doing it one way, he can’t suddenly change. She doesn’t. Instead, she says, “Dov, we don’t have ‘this.’ We never do ‘this.’ And if you want it so much, there’s nothing stopping you from coming with me to Miami.”
She pauses a moment. “I’m flying down next week to finalize details.”
He looks down at his plate, hiding his face, but she knows what he doesn’t want her to see. Shadowed eyes, hollowed expression.
They’re quiet the remainder of the meal.
Chava inserts her key card into the slot and feels the vibration on her fingertips as the lock gives way. She pushes the door open and steps inside her hotel room. She drops her briefcase on the floor, opens the balcony door, and stands for a moment, wondering if she should order in or go out for dinner.
Last night, she went out, and while she’s dined alone in the past, this time she was acutely conscious of the families and couples laughing at the other tables. She had felt gloom envelop her. She drowned it in paperwork, and later, with sleep.
But today, she feels the melancholy creeping at the edges of her consciousness. She slips off her shoes, looks around the neutral, sterile room. It’s empty in a different way than her house in Brooklyn. Her home seems to always be in a state of waiting, a breath waiting for release.
She takes a can of seltzer from the mini bar and pours some into a cup. She sits down at the desk and feels an urge to call Dov.
“Hi,” she says, when he picks up the phone.
“How’s the weather?” he asks.
She knows the acoustics of her house. “You’re home early. Why are you in the living room?” she says. She hears the clink of glass on marble.
“And what are you drinking?”
“There was wine left from Shabbos,” he says, and she hears the smile in his voice. “But I’m home because I needed to think.”
“About you. About us.”
She hears him swallow.
“Your job in Miami.” He stops for a moment, and she knows he’s still there because he takes a breath. “Everything. I wonder about our choices.”
The timbre of his voice changes, and she can picture him pacing. She sighs. “It’s very quiet here. I didn’t imagine it to be this way.”
He pauses for a moment, and she can picture him gathering thoughts.
“Chava, what if I made a mistake?”
Her earlier melancholy spreads like watercolor on paper.
He continues. “You get married, and you think this is who I am, who we are. What if you realize how much you’ve missed, and you want things to be different?”
Chava is quiet. Then she says, “I miss you, Dov. I didn’t expect to. I miss what we could have been. Before I left, I was sure this was the right thing for me. I was sure things couldn’t really be different between us.”
“I know we’ve always had more of a parallel existence than a friendship,” he says. The rest of his words come in spurts. “I know it’s because I made work a priority. But I think we could still have that friendship, if we made the time.”
She hears pipes creak in Brooklyn, floorboards groan. Through her open porch door, she hears a dog bark.
“I want things to be different.” He pauses. “I think I’m going to lose you if you move to Florida. I really always thought you’d be here.”
She looks at her briefcase, and the dun-colored walls. His words seep in, prick, make her sorrowful.
“You’re right. I could come with you,” he says.
Her shoulders deflate. “What about your work?”
She hears the smile in his voice again. “That’s why I’m home thinking. I’m going to make this happen. I’ll either sell my partnership, or discuss how we can open a branch in Miami.”
She feels a stirring deep within, feelings she’s long let go. “You’re willing to do this? For us?”
“Not for the us now. For the us we could be.”
She leans back and covers her eyes with her hands. She feels a wetness on her fingers, and the chair firm against her back. In her mind, she sees the road behind her and the road stretching before her. There’s pressure in her temples and an unfamiliar thickness in her chest. She pictures Dov in their home, not as he is now, but as the young man she once loved.
“We have a lot to talk about,” she says. “Should we start at the beginning?”
(Originally featured in Family First, Issue 759)
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