Safety in Numbers| February 15, 2022
Seven years, no children, slim odds. Sometimes numbers are unforgiving
I love numbers. They make sense in a way that nothing else does. One plus one will always, always equal two. Two will always be the first prime number. Four is always a perfect square.
And people wonder if I never get bored of accounting.
Why would I get bored when it all makes so much sense? Calculate your debits against your credits and that’s the amount you come away with. Numbers never lie.
Relationships, on the other hand? Harder to work with. Twice two might equal trouble if it’s two brothers and their wives who don’t get along. A simple equation that worked yesterday might blow up in your face tomorrow.
I’m grateful for people who don’t wait for tax-season madness. And for coffee, as I sip from the YOU’LL ALWAYS COUNT mug Shimon once picked up for me from a trip to the Rockies, and stare at the one file that refuses to make sense.
It’s our own.
For the second time, I compare our expenditures of the last twelve months. Then all our income.
There’s $3,000 missing.
I don’t usually make mistakes, but maybe I’m just nervous for our appointment tomorrow?
I print it all out, find a red pen, and do my calculations the old-fashioned way.
October, November, December. A $1,000 hole in each.
I stare at the wall above my working space. Which is an optimistic way of describing the little niche I create in the corner of our very cozy dining room/living area during the week.
Where would a thousand bucks disappear for three months in a row?
And how didn’t I notice?
But then I look at the clock and it’s 1:48 a.m. I still have to finish Deweck’s file, so I shove the papers into our mail pile, and the enigma into a mental file labeled HOME, and go back to the screen.
I talk too much when I’m nervous, and even though I know that, somehow, I just can’t stop.
Besides for a couple of “hmms” to show that she’s listening to me, Toby is silent in the passenger’s seat. She’s nervous too, pulling down the mirror flap to fluff her bangs, flipping it up again, snapping the clasp on her pocketbook open and closed.
I prattle, she clicks. After seven years of marriage, we know each other’s patterns under stress. Toby gets quiet, I make enough noise for the two of us.
We’ll have to discuss whatever it is the specialist has to tell us later anyway, so maybe we should just enjoy the ride.
“Mind passing me some gum?”
Toby opens the glove compartment and fishes inside.
“None here, you have a new pack somewhere?”
“Never mind, put it on your list and send me a reminder.”
I tighten my fingers around the steering wheel, stare ahead, and talk about the cat that got in the shul kitchen and ate Niederman’s herring.
Once we’re in Professor Papageorgiou’s office, Shimon’s words dry up and then it’s up to me to talk about our history and answer myriad questions. Shimon doesn’t do well in unwcomfortable situations, and I’m better at keeping the facts straight. But I know he’s listening carefully, and it’s good for me to know that, as we both are told dismal statistics.
I like balancing the books, not betting on odds or probabilities. This is our future as parents the professor is talking about, and the prognosis doesn’t look good.
We get up to leave, and Shimon shakes the professor’s hand while I clutch my bag and nod politely, both of our faces blank against his compassionate look.
Seven years, no children, slim odds. I’ll always love numbers and the way they tell you the truth, but there are times you’d want them to be more forgiving, nevertheless.
We slide into the car, pull our seatbelts across, click them in tandem, and just sit. Shimon makes no move towards the ignition, and I’m not going to be the one to break the silence.
He turns towards me, and I stifle a reactive jerk as a bolt of pain shoots from his eyes straight into mine.
“Toby? Do you want to talk about this now?”
I’m not ready to see Shimon fall apart. I’ll never be ready, but if I have a choice, it won’t be now, here in the car in this horrible gray parking lot. Speckles of rain dot the windshield, and I gesture to the sky.
“It’s going to pour. Let’s go. We’ll talk later.”
Instead of thinking about Professor Papageorgiou and his tight black curls and straight Greek nose and grim pronunciations, I let my thoughts turn towards $3,000 that somehow vanished from my sight. And now I won’t be able to ask Shimon about it, at least not this week, because what’s money in the big scheme of things?
It’s a miracle I have the house to focus on. I let myself in, careful not to jam the warped door with its rusty lock completely closed.
My phone’s flashlight is too weak, casting a dim circle about a foot in front of me, but I don’t mind the darkness. Even in its raw state, I know every inch of pulled up flooring, exposed pipes, dangling wires. The stairs’ treads are safe enough to step on, but the banister has too many loose rails, so I keep towards the wall.
I’m good with raw things. I can look at the crumbling walls and moldy ceilings of an old, dingy house and know just how much potential is there. Sometimes I’ll stand in awe at the sight of a high ceiling, my mind seeing different color combinations, window sizing, a room broken through to maximize the majesty of it. Then it’s my team’s job to do it while I urge them on.
The floorboards creak in the master bedroom, and I make a mental note to ask my partner Duvi if he got hold of lock lubricant or powdered graphite to deal with it. I’m drawn to the bay window — the crown jewel of the house. Imagine having a postcard view greet you every single morning. It’s what made me fall in love with the house; made me want to work on it even though the ground floor was almost beyond saving.
I don’t think of the madness that overtook me; of the massive project this turned out to be. All I think about is how this house will look when it’s finished, how close we are, how no one should ever give up on anything even if everyone else says it’s impossible. About how dreams sometimes come true when you’re least expecting it.
I lean my forehead against the window, peer out into the blackness, and pray.
Eleven is my favorite number. A one and a one, standing close together.
And if one of them slides, teeters or falters, the other one is always there to hold it up.
Shimon goes to check out one of his building projects, and I bury myself in old Mrs. Indictor’s idea of financial records.
I hate myself for dreading Shimon’s arrival home. I hate that I can’t key all the right things that we’ve done into some giant calculator and get the right results.
And I hate that I’ve discovered that Shimon has been transferring $1,000 a month from our joint account to his work account and I don’t know why.
Folding my lips inwards, I squint at a spidery scrawl that says Misc. Items and wonder what a cassrldsh is just as Shimon’s key turns in the lock.
I get up and turn on the kettle. Coffee has to be good for something, and it will be a long night.
Shimon tells me to sit on what passes for our couch, a small padded chair with arms he once found in pristine condition outside an old apartment building slated for demolition, but I prefer one of the regular chairs, cold hands wrapped around my trusty mug.
“I know you don’t want to talk about this, Toby. It’s hard for me to make you talk when you don’t want to… but we can’t go on circling each other all day. It might be easier to pretend our appointment today didn’t happen… but it did. And it’s big. And who else are we going to talk about it with?”
“I know,” I whisper, an involuntary shudder making my shoulders quiver. “I want to talk to you… but,” tears, tears, stay away. I pull a tissue from the box and twist it. “It’s hard. I’m sorry.”
I can’t look at Shimon. It hurts, his pain, my pain. Our pain.
“As usual, I can talk for the both of us,” Shimon chokes out a sound that’s supposed to be a laugh but makes me want to cry.
“So. Basically.” If Shimon is out of words, it’s worse than I thought. “The doc said there’s not much to do, yeah?”
“$25,000 for a statistical miracle, he said.” I put the numbers down easily, as if it’s not our lives we’re talking about — the dollars and weeks and the months and more money on top of everything we’ve already spent.
Of all the things that can never be enumerated — the ups and the downs and the hope and the disappointment — I don’t say a word.
The silence grows as we’re both lost in the computations of something beyond our ken until Shimon breaks it.
“Toby? What happens if we don’t do it?” Shimon is squeezing his fingers together so hard, they’re purple.
How should I know what would happen? The odds are so miniscule, would it make a difference?
“Who said anything would happen,” I say.
This is how we’ve always worked best — I bring in the data and Shimon makes decisions. He sees the big picture, the total that will be greater than the sum of the parts I’ve given him. And it works every time.
Tonight, though, I feel as though I’ve worked all the way through a long mathematical problem only to have it fall apart at the solution. And I don’t know where I’ve gone wrong.
I’m on my hands and knees in what has miraculously become the kitchen, sweating through my shirt even though it’s not that hot today.
“You gotta pull, Seemon, I push!” Alejandro yells from behind the door.
“I pull!” I yell back. Why does my English seem to deteriorate when I’m working with the crew?
I don’t usually get my hands dirty — I’m the one who makes sure that everyone’s doing what they should be, that the technicalities go smoothly. Today, though, I need the distraction — and the house is so, so close to completion that I don’t hesitate to pull my weight if there’s anything I can do to speed things up.
“Hey Seemon!” Juan startles me, and I let go of the wires I’ve been pulling, prompting some loud exclamations from Alejandro that I thankfully can’t understand.
“Sorry, sorry, perdón, Alejandro!” I pull myself to standing and start towards the door. “Juan surprised me here, I’ll be right on it in a sec.”
“I say perdón,” Juan interrupts and waves his hands while firing off what I hope is an appeasing explanation.
“See here, Seemon, come, I have una pregunta.” I follow him up the stairs, wondering what questions are left when we’d finished up there last week.
A copper pipe has come away from the wall in the bathroom. We left it exposed because it meshed so well with the décor. Really, an amateur should know what to do.
“Juan, pipe straps!”
He looks at me stupidly, and I’m suddenly angry. I want the house to be ready, I want things to work.
“Juan! Now, find pipe straps and fix!”
I wish there was an old piece of drywall still up so I could kick it hard, watch it crumble to bits in a choking cloud of dust. Instead, I walk slowly down the stairs, feeling a hundred years old.
Shimon is excited about something, giving off a happy energy over the last day or two. In the month since the appointment we’ve both settled back into predictable routine, me with my clients and their fiscal headaches, and him with this big renovation project he’s been busy with for months. I still haven’t managed to find the right moment to ask him about the money from our account.
“Toby?” he says, and the way he sounds suddenly makes me think he may be planning a surprise. $3,000 for tickets? There’s nowhere in the world I want to go right now, but I do want Shimon to be happy, so I click save and swivel round with a smile.
“So I was wondering if maybe you wanted to come and see the house I’ve been working on?”
Oh. Not tickets. Never flexible at the best of times; I think of the workload I’d planned for the morning and then feel a flash of guilt as I look at Shimon’s hopeful face.
“I’d love that,” I answer, hoping my enthusiasm doesn’t sound as forced as I feel. “It’s been on your head for so long! You wanted to leave now?”
I wonder about Shimon’s attachment to this particular house — something about this job has made him more involved. Maybe it’s because they tore it down more or less to its skeleton and then built it all back up again. And Shimon was the one with the vision for it.
We stop on a quiet street with pretty houses and neat lawns. We’d looked at houses in this area once, when we thought it was time to move, but prices made us rethink it. Even so, I sometimes walk through, admiring the neat little houses and imagining that one of them belonged to us. Our apartment is tiny, and we’ve spent a very long time waiting for a good excuse to move.
I quash the thought and focus.
Walking up the path, I can see residual signs of building — the path needs repaving and what I assume was once a hedge has been trampled to death by some monster with massive tires.
The house itself is beautiful. The kitchen is large and airy; a massive window over the sink will turn dishwashing into some lucky woman’s favorite chore. Our footsteps echo on the parquet in the dining room and Shimon opens the patio doors for a peek into what will be a nice size garden.
We make our way upstairs, and I count three doors to bedrooms, another one for the bath. I pull my mind away from imagining someone’s children slumbering peacefully in these spacious rooms.
But the pièce de résistance, what makes me gasp, is the bay window in the empty master bedroom. A shaft of sunlight glances through one side, turning every dancing mote into diamond dust. And the view of the hills behind makes me feel like I’m on vacation right now.
“Yes,” I breathe. “Wow. Imagine waking up to that every day.”
“That’s exactly what I thought when I first saw this house,” Shimon’s excitement spills over the two of us. “Imagine what it could be like to wake up to that every day.”
I close my eyes for a second. “Imagine.”
I open my eyes and turn to Shimon. He smiles beatifically and holds out a key.
“We can find out.”
I stare at the key and try to understand. It takes me ten seconds that last a lifetime, and then I can’t breathe. It feels like the walls are going to come down on me.
Shimon bought this house?
There’s a screeching in my ears and I feel the blood draining from my face. I think I’m going to faint.
Do you know what it’s like to keep a huge secret for so long from your wife?
It’s almost impossible, especially if she’s in charge of making sure all your accounts are balanced.
When we first looked for houses in this area, I knew it was perfect. But how would we afford it? An enormous down payment wouldn’t work for us, and neither would a huge mortgage.
Still, I took to driving around here every so often until I saw this, a hovel if there ever was one. Ah, but the potential! That’s my forte.
I brought Duvi over, and we spoke to the old gentleman who owned it. He was planning to move to be near his daughter and knew he wouldn’t get a very good price if he put the house on the market in the state it was in. To be honest, he sounded relieved that someone had taken the decision making out of his hands.
We hammered the details out so easily; it was clearly meant to be. The big issue was the money, of course. Duvi was amazing and helped me work it all out — nothing like a best buddy and partner of five years who always has your back. All our savings towards the house we one day hoped to own were already in my own work account, so I drained it almost empty for the down payment. Then Duvi helped me get a loan for the rest, and once I couldn’t stretch my work account any more, I took the $1,000 for monthly repayment from our joint account in the hope Toby wouldn’t notice until the house was ready.
For months now, every time I’ve walked up this path, into the drilling and chaos, I’ve imagined Toby’s face as I showed her our dream home.
With every disappointment, I’ve buried myself into the endless things needed to turn this hovel into a palace. And the thought of Toby, exactly as she’s standing now opposite that awesome window, kept me going even when the workers splintered a door, even when the backsplash cracked, even when the quiet nights threatened to drive me crazy.
“I, I—” Toby’s gone a bit pale. “Shimon. Wow.”
It is a bit of a shock, the way I’ve sprung it on her. But I’ve been planning it like that, with the sun exactly there, forever. Toby doesn’t do well with changes; it will take her time.
“Yeah, you didn’t guess, did you?”
“N-no. How? When…”
We walk downstairs, Toby holding onto the handrail as if she’s worried it isn’t real, while I tell her everything.
She smiles and smiles, and oohs and aahs, all the way home, but she hardly says a word.
My thoughts are in the most jumbled mess I can ever remember. A house? Some husbands surprise their wives with flowers and chocolates, jewelry maybe, a cruise to Aruba.
My husband surprised me with a house, and I don’t know what to think.
It’s like a miserable playback. A house.
A house? I wanted to go together with him, to check it out; to wrangle, the two of us, over the technical and financial details, to discuss the neighborhood, the size, the shape. Not like this. A done deal without me.
Shimon looks at me, waiting for me to get over the shock — to beam and gush over his brilliance, his generosity, his talent.
I’m a bad wife. I should be over the moon, but I’m not, and I’m not the kind of person who can fake that. Shimon would know.
He tells me he’s going to daven Minchah, and like a puppet I smile and wave goodbye.
He’s hurt. I know that. I just don’t know what to do about it.
I turn on my computer, because if there’s anything that will pull my brain cells into order, it’s accounting. Profits, deficits, a hundred in, a hundred out.
I look at the rows and rows of neat little numbers crawling down the page, but I can’t focus.
One thousand plus one thousand plus one thousand.
Three thousand dollars.
That’s nothing toward a house. What did he need a thousand dollars a month for, the mortgage? Extra pay for the workers?
It’s Thursday, and I can’t afford to sit here, thoughts in a loop, the screen a conglomeration of meaningless pixels. A house. Three thousand dollars. A house?
I drift to the fridge and that’s when I remember we have guests this Friday night. Guests, a couple, I can’t remember their names. Shimon met the husband in an ATIME meeting for men. ATIME, a time to weep and a time to laugh. I don’t even know the wife.
I can’t cancel them now, it’s too late. And it’s not Shimon’s fault. But maybe it is, because it’s certainly not my fault.
My head hurts so badly, I sit down again and squeeze my eyes so hard I see light flashes.
You can have everything planned in your head, down to a single shaft of sunlight at a specific angle. And then it hits a piece of glass and turns into a forest fire.
I don’t know how to fix something if I don’t know how it’s broken. Me, the man with the vision, who fixes things beyond repair.
I nod and smile at Motti, a great guy I met at one of those meetings for men like me, a brave mountain of a man with a heart just as big. I have no idea what we’ve been talking about all the way home from shul, though. As we walk up towards our front door I put on a smile, bright and wide, just like I’ve been doing for the last 36 hours or so.
Toby smiles back. Also fake. I hope she managed to find some common ground with Motti’s wife. We should have cancelled them, but Thursday night? We know what that feels like.
We sing Shalom Aleichem, Motti’s voice even bigger than him and his heart. I’m suddenly glad for a bit of noise. I need all the help I can get.
Toby seems to relax after the fish and dips are served. Motti has some hilarious stories to tell about his work as a kashrus mashgiach, and in between his punchlines and my laughter, I catch snippets of conversation, something about teaching and books our wives both enjoy. I relax a bit myself, go slightly overboard on the Black Label — nothing too extreme — and think that maybe things will be okay.
But after we escort the Blums out of our apartment, when I turn to Toby with a cheerful comment about how well that turned out, another door slams shut.
She turns away to wash the crystal glasses and fancy silverware, and I swipe the crumbs off the lace tablecloth into my palm.
Sometimes the simplest of dreams seem so far away, it seems hopeless to even try. I’ve spent months trying to give my wife the second-best thing I thought could bring her happiness.
And for reasons beyond my limited understanding of how her mind works, I’ve made her sadder than I’ve ever seen, and that’s saying a lot. And now she won’t even talk to me.
I don’t know what to do.
Somehow, it’s Sunday. I don’t think I’ve slept since Thursday. I’ve gone to bed, definitely. But my thoughts just go round and round and even if I drift off, I wake up tired of them.
I don’t even know where Shimon is as I stare at the cold coffee in my mug.
My husband bought a house. Without me.
And slowly, I let myself feel.
For the first time in a very long time, I’m angry. What right does my husband have to take away this decision from me? What right?
I say it out loud and slam my palm on the table. “What right? What right?”
This should have been us together.
And then I’m crying, deep, horrible, gulping sobs.
I did it to myself. I gave Shimon the right.
Every time I walked away from a decision and left him to make it, I gave my husband the right.
Every time I ran away from my feelings, I relied on Shimon to step in and hold his own for both of us. It was simpler for me, after the sting of each disappointment grew sharper and stronger, to step away and let Shimon be the one to feel, to think, to decide. It’s too hard for me to think of numbers that crush you to pieces.
I shrug into my coat and leave.
I walk and walk, thoughts pounding in a never-ending stream of brutal self-recrimination. I brought this on myself. Unwittingly, maybe — I don’t think either of us felt the damage I was causing to the two of us, slipping quietly into my safe space on a screen with all the numbers that forever made sense. And I did it again and again and again, each time becoming easier than the last, until it was just Shimon, alone, carrying the burden for the two of us. Deciding against treatment. Buying a house.
My eyes blur, and I dash my sleeve against them again and again.
Shimon is so good to me; if I tell him I don’t want the house, he’ll sell it. I know he will.
But how can I make him sell something he poured his heart into for me?
I know Shimon. Every choice he made in that house was with me in mind. It’s more my house than if I had done the choosing myself.
I need to find my voice.
I need to find the strength to be a wife. We’re in this life together.
Make a choice, I mutter under my breath. Make a choice. My choice. Make my choice.
Careful not to trip, I walk up to the front door.
I never noticed the house number before, and I lift my finger to trace the two gilded ones.
Eleven. One and a one.
I’ve let us be a one and a one for too long.
Shimon clears his throat behind me.
“We can sell it, if you don’t like it.”
See, I know Shimon. And oh, how well he knows me.
I think of this house, of our house, and shake my head with a smile.
One plus one always equals two.
And with a tiny shoot of hope pushing through the icy crust I’ve formed around my heart, we step across the threshold as I pray for the numbers to follow.
(Originally featured in Family First, Issue 781)
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