With every step she takes the heaviness slides away.
The mediocrity she regularly wears falls off piece by piece drops silently to the ground becomes flattened beneath her heel. The streets are clad in a thin layer of tired leaves peeking timidly from crevices or tumbling mercilessly across the sidewalk. Normally Bella would find the death of summer depressing. She would cringe at the hint of winter weaving its way through the evening breeze. But not tonight. Tonight she grows lighter with every step. Tonight the promise of frigid days and bare spindly trees are but an afterthought inconsequential against the backdrop of this great evening. By the time Bella spots the hall she is practically feather-like hovering softly above lowly earth. It is a powerful feeling this partnership with Heaven. It fills her with a weightlessness that fades over time...until the next shidduch is made and she drifts upward once again. In the periods between her work she settles into her averageness nicely; 40 years of sitting in the shadows of a great man has made her amenable to quiet dark spaces. Even now as she basks in the bright light of tonight’s simchah she herself will not shine. No one will realize her hand in this. Any acquaintances she might have waiting in the hall won’t question her presence — a perk of being married to The Lawyer. No one will know this is her shidduch.
But she knows. Her heart dances as she clutches the door handle her grasp stronger than usual filled with the power of creating a future in a space that held only uncertainty. As she passes the mirrored hallway she stops for a moment inspecting herself. There is nothing particularly distinctive about Bella. Her outfit is classic well-tailored black. The skin around her eyes has begun to sag slightly and the crevices around her mouth have grown deeper. She realizes that she is completely forgettable; a woman whose most distinguishing feature is the man she is married to. But to a handful of people dotting the earth she is an absolute hero. To them she has made all the difference. And that fills Bella like nothing else.
She’d taped the invitation to the side of the fridge. Highlighted the date in red marker on her calendar Greenberg/Markfield Wedding. A smiley face for effect.
The couple had dated for only two weeks. It was clear after the first date that they didn’t really need her. They had both called in with glowing reports failing to disguise their excitement under layers of practiced cool. After the second date Bella stepped aside and the mazel tov phone call came soon after. There wasn't a glitch the whole way through. She’d been in Switzerland at the time of the vort — Shia took off one week a year so there was no opting out — but she couldn't miss the wedding as well. Of course Shia couldn't come tonight but Bella had grown used to attending simchahs on her own. She didn't bother asking him anymore. *
t all began 15 years ago when Bella approached Dr. Backstein her longtime next-door neighbor and one of the city’s premier pediatric oncologists. She had an idea she told him borne from a deep desire to help a close friend’s daughter who lived with the knowledge that she would probably never have biological children. A 20-year-old girl with a large empty hole in place of a future. “You must have frum single patients dealing with infertility due to...” Bella had started nervously. “I can't be having this conversation with you ” he cut her off gently. “Obviously you understand discussing my patients’ medical conditions would be a breach of confidentiality.” Bella cleared her throat.
“That’s not what I'm asking of you. All I'm asking is that if you do have a patient who wants to be completely upfront about his condition... I'm sure shidduchim like this aren't simple but I have an idea that could make it easier.”
Dr. Backstein raised an eyebrow. “Go on.”
“I want to be a filter. No one wants their child's medical history laid out for all to see but at the same time the medical condition needs to be shared to make an appropriate match. If you would vouch for me then I could be a sieve. I would meet each side and get a detailed medical history. If I find two people who I think would be well matched then all I would tell them is that they’re compatible. They would go out to see if everything else matches up — if they click if they enjoy spending time together. If things go well it would be their responsibility to share their personal medical information at the right time. If it doesn't work out then they part ways but without carrying with them the intimate details of the other person’s medical situation.”
Baruch Hashem the idea took off and slowly Bella's name grew — but only in very certain circles. Few of her acquaintances knew what Bella did in her spare time. Her children viewed her clandestine shidduch services as a sweet hobby something to fill the long empty-nest days. Her three sons were all lawyers like Shia and her daughter a busy CPA. Go-getters all of them. Disinclined to meddle in such human trivialities. None of them had time for such activities. (In fact it seemed the only people in her life with any time at all were the grandkids sweet wide-eyed children eager to listen to books on long Shabbos afternoons while their parents slept off the week. Bella relished every moment with them.)
She'd met Chavie, tonight's kallah, through the usual channels; as a teenager, she'd been a patient of Dr. Backstein, and after a recent annual checkup, he recommended Chavie set up a meeting with Bella.
Chavie’s eyes were the first thing Bella noticed as she walked through the door. Green flecked with sunshine intelligence laughter. Her black hair subtly curled at the ends her outfit attractive but understated. A sparkling girl.
Bella brought two cups of water into the living room and set them down gently on the coffee table.
Chavie's back was to her slightly stooped looking intently at the plethora of family photos sitting on the end table. When seen through her eyes the endless photos of children and grandchildren made Bella's heart skip a beat. Her blessings took her breath away in the face of this young woman's burden; a heavy load of emptiness bereft of gurgling newborns first steps tiny new teeth. “They are all beautiful ” Chavie said turning toward Bella with a smile. “Thank you ” Bella answered softly.
Chavie went through her medical history with a professionalism that was both impressive and sobering. Bella nodded listened attentively.
“The bottom line is I want to marry someone who won’t have any illusions about a future family. I want someone in the same position as me.” She spoke with a fierce resolve. Bella hated to be the one to tumble the towering castle of courage this young woman had so carefully constructed. But she’d always considered herself a beacon of honesty. She believed truth to be the fairy dust of all good things. False hope would be poison in a situation like this.
She took off her glasses weighing her words carefully before speaking.
Chavie’s eyelids fluttered. The bricks of hope she’d so carefully stacked around her came crashing down. She looked up at Bella and inhaled deeply.
“The people…who don’t know. They think I’m being picky,” she said so softly, Bella nearly missed the fiery ache held in the words.
Bella looked Chavie directly in the eye.
“Hashem makes shidduchim,” she said in a warm, firm voice.
Chavie sat very still.
“Say it,” urged Bella.
“Hashem makes shidduchim,” she whispered. A little smile began to dance at the corner of her mouth.
“There you go. You have the Creator of the universe working night and day for you. What more can you ask for?”
They parted with smiles, Chavie bouncing right back into her world of optimism.
A girl who knows how to deal with pain. A girl who lives life fully. A girl with resilience, Bella marveled after she left.
It was only three months later that she got a call from Ruchy Freihoff, a volunteer familiar with Bella’s work. She spoke about a friend’s nephew, a wonderful young man…popular, smart, a real ben Torah with beautiful middos. But after being diagnosed with a rare syndrome, he’s living with the painful knowledge that his chances of ever having a family are…minute.
It was simply perfection.
s Bella enters the room, the band starts up for the badeken. She stands still for one powerful moment, letting the simchah wash over her. The excitement is palpable. She can feel the emotion pulsing behind her eyes, overflowing, streaming down her cheeks. She joins the throngs of women standing on either side, at last finding a pocket of space to catch a glimpse of Meir Markfield. He is immersed in a sea of elation, his face positively radiant as he walks toward Chavie. A young, red-headed teenager keeps nudging Bella in the ribs, but she barely notices. Nothing matters but these two souls in front of her. Two souls whose tortured pasts might have destroyed their future.
Two souls who found Bella.
When at last the badeken is over and the crowd begins to thin, Bella relinquishes all sense of appropriate behavior for a woman her age and stands shamelessly on tiptoes to catch a glimpse of Chavie.
The mothers are fussing with her dress and veil, helping her up from her throne. Chavie turns to greet someone, her face filled with a beautiful light, and Bella can finally see her through her veil.
It is a nice face. A kallah‘s face. A shining, happy face.
But the wrong face.
Bella stands very still while the cogs in her brain grind to a halt. Furious thoughts pit against one another, vying for a place within her consciousness, and for one terrifying moment, she wonders if she has lost her mind entirely. The ground beneath her feet suddenly begins to shift, the walls tilt toward her.
The red-headed girl to her left is surprisingly strong, strong enough to support her weight for a split second.
“Water!” someone calls out.
Bella’s eyes are still blurry when her head begins to clear.
“Stop the wedding!” Bella whispers under her breath as she straightens, still holding onto the girl for support. “We need to stop this…” she trails off.
Red-head glances quizzically at her friend standing next to her, eyes wide.
“Um, can I get you a chair?” she asks.
“No. No. No. I need to see the kallah.”
“Ok, uh….I think the chuppah is going to start in a minute. Maybe you can catch her after the first dance?”
“There won’t be a chuppah…. can’t be a chuppah,” Bella mumbles. “I need to see the kallah.” She becomes increasingly frantic, her thoughts spinning uncontrollably.
How could this happen? Her name… what was her name?
“What’s the kallah’s name?” she asks the girl weakly.
“Um… Miss Greenfield? I think Chava. She was my science teacher last year.”
Bella’s mind thinks back. Chava Greenfield. Chavie Green….berg? Chava Greenfield. Chavie Greenberg.
She’d called the wrong girl. She’d set up the wrong girl. The wrong… wrong girl.
She straightens, inhales deeply, begins walking toward the corridor.
“Wait, are you sure you’re ok?” the girl calls out.
She ignores her.
t had been a week or two after she’d met Chavie Greenberg. Sparkling, kind, fantastic Chavie Greenberg.
Chava Greenfield had called to set up an appointment, and Bella had assumed she’d gotten her number from the usual sources. As she ushered her into the living room, Bella noticed nothing exceptional about Chava. Her hair was a straight, dark brown. Her eyes seemed intelligent but tired. Burnt. Sad.
Chavie launched into her background with a singular focus, as if by rote; it was obvious she’d done this before. She went through her upbringing, her job, and what she was looking for in a spouse before Bella could ask a single question. At last, after declaring an utmost flexibility in where she would consider living (anywhere from Australia to Alaska, just not Brooklyn) she ran out of steam. She adjusted her bracelet and crossed her ankles as her eyes darted subtly around the room for the first time since she arrived.
Bella shifted uncomfortably, waiting for her to get to the fundamental details, to explain why she’d come specifically to her.
She needs some gentle probing, it can be difficult to start talking about such things, Bella realized.
“Ok… let’s begin. In general, the more details you can share about your situation, the better. You have to understand, I’m a conduit of honesty. The people who come to me aren’t hiding things, they are truly interested in finding a match within the confines of their medical circumstances. If you have any sort of doctor’s report — I’m really not trying to pry — that would be helpful. I’d like to get a feel of what we’re dealing with. I assure you that none of this will be shared with any potential shidduch. I will never breathe a word about your medical history to a single person. All I tell the other side is that I feel the shidduch is compatible. Four words. It’s up to the couple themselves to discuss their medical history at the right time, if things proceed.”
Chava’s mouth opened slightly, closed slowly.
“Um…what?” She croaked, her voice suddenly hoarse. “I mean. I’m getting older… I’m 29….turning 30 in December,” she said, as if that should explain everything.
Bella took off her glasses, surprised.
“That’s it? No underlying medical…” She stopped short.
Chava shook her head.
“Ok. Well then. I’m not sure I’m the appropriate address for you, dear. There are many regular shadchanim in the city, many many—”
“I’ve been to them. I’ve been to every single one of them. I was surprised I’d never heard of you when a friend mentioned your name. I guess people don’t know…what you do exactly…” Chava replied, a thread of desperation in her voice.
“No. No, no. I keep it private. I don’t need people spying me at a wedding and wondering if I made the shidduch, if there’s something wrong with the couple.”
Chava stood up abruptly. “I’m so sorry I took up your time, this was all just a mistake, I’m so embarrassed,” she mumbled quickly, her cheeks crimson.
Bella felt something soften inside. No need to make her feel bad.
“No, no. no. There are no mistakes. Who knows? Maybe I’ll meet a wonderful boy and your name will just pop into my head!” That won’t happen. Of course that won’t happen, because I’ve already forgotten you and you’re right in front of me.
Bella whipped out her phone and programmed her name — Chava G — and number in so she’d have it when that nice boy came along, she explained to Chava. An act of chesed, Bella praised herself.
“Thank you. It’s just hard, you know. Painful. I’m the last one in my class. I don’t think people realize how difficult it is…to be alone.”
You think being alone is hard? You think it’s painful? What do you know of pain? You should see the girls who come through here. How dare you think you have it bad? Bella thought with disdain.
“Hashem makes shidduchim,” Bella said, a little roughly, as Chava made her way to the front door.
Chava’s eyes widened at her tone. She gave a quick nod and muttered a low good-bye.
Ungrateful for the blessings she’s been given, Bella thought disapprovingly after she left. Ungrateful.
ella bursts into the room. A gaggle of tiny girls in white dresses and flower wreaths look up at her, surprised. Chava is sitting serenely, her head buried in her Tehillim. Bella stops short at the sight.
“Ma’am, the chuppah is about begin,” a woman clutching a thick notebook motions toward the door.
“I need to speak to the kallah,” Bella says firmly. You stole him. You stole sparkling Chavie’s future. A shidduch that was never meant for you. You could have married anyone!
Chava looks up suddenly. A fleeting look of panic darts across her face.
“Ma’am please. You need to leave.”
“No. Wait.” Chava says loudly, closing her Tehillim.
“What’s this, Chava?” asks a slender woman, slightly younger then Bella, eyebrows raised.
Her mother. Same brown eyes, thinks Bella.
“This is the shadchan, Mommy.”
“Ah.” She purses her lips, offers nothing more.
And suddenly Bella can see everything. The fights and the tears and the torment that must have ensued. The pain, the mind-bending pain, of watching a daughter make a choice like this. This mother must have dreamed of this day for 30 years, only to find it looks nothing like she could have imagined. The flourishing landscape she’d always foreseen has turned to rocky, desolate earth. On this day, in this place built solely for beginnings, there is a thick impenetrable feeling of the end. Bella feels herself sway at the enormity of the situation.
“I’m sorry,” Bella says. “I didn’t mean for any of this…”
The mother pinches the bridge of her nose, opens her mouth to say something, then shakes her head slightly. She walks away, leaving Bella reeling, grasping for something to hold on to.
“Come in here,” Chava motions to a small room off to the side. Bella follows her into the room and closes the door behind them. It is filled with hangers and makeup, water bottles, clothing on every available surface.
“You lied.” Bella says, unable to keep the emotion from her voice.
“I never lied.”
“You didn’t tell the truth, though. You should have told me the moment you realized I made a mistake. Like the first time I called you ‘Chavie’. You know there is a Chavie, right? A kind, wonderful, barren Chavie.” Bella’s eyes narrow, her hands shake.
Chava blinks rapidly against the sting.
“After the first date…we just knew. And every date just got better. I couldn’t…you were right.” Her voice grows stronger. “Hashem makes shidduchim.”
Bella feels sick. She sits down on the closest chair. She is lead. The weight of her mistake pulls her downward. She feels a heaviness she never knew existed.
“Why?” asks Bella. “Why are you doing this? Why are you giving up your future? A line of mothers and children that began at creation will now end. And for what? Because you’re the last in your class?” Bella’s words come in scathing, breathless bursts.
“Please.” Chava holds up her hand, her lips trembling. “I’m begging you. I’ve had to defend myself to nearly everyone I love. I can’t do it anymore. Not now. I found the person I want to spend my life with. And if it means giving up one dream to fulfill another then…then I’m prepared to do that.”
Bella says nothing, only stares at the wild, spinning, madness in front of her.
“Do you know what it’s like to have that one person who fully understands you?” Chava asks, her voice softening, her eyes suddenly alive. “I feel like I’ve been waiting for this forever, to find this person who… who enjoys the same things I do, who wants the same things I want. It’s like we’re one soul divided in two. There’s nothing like this sensation, knowing there is one person in the world who will always be there for you.”
And Bella realizes that she does not.
She does not know what that is like. For she is married to a man who is married to his work.
Suddenly the disdain she felt for Chava, that ugliness at the end of their meeting, comes rushing back to her. I wasn’t upset by her ungratefulness, she realizes. No one has a monopoly on pain. I was upset because her pain mirrors my own.
Alone. All alone.
And for one tiny, horrifying second, Bella is envious of the beaming kallah in front of her. Utterly jealous of the raw joy reverberating off her.
hava? We’re ready. Thirty seconds,” Notebook lady says as she pops her head in.
Bella’s eyes are moist, her heart racing.
“Please, please Chava … forgive me. Not now. But soon, when you come back down from the cloud you’re on today, when your arms are empty in the quiet of the night, and you wonder what you’ve done. I’m begging of you, please forgive me then. It was a mistake…an honest mistake.”
Chava takes her hands, looks into Bella’s eyes.
“There are no mistakes. Remember?” she says with a smile. Her eyes are pools of dancing glitter, utter joy.
Bella is silent as Chava leaves the room.
It is out of her hands.
Her limp, powerless hands.
Because, maybe, it was never in them to begin with.
(Originally featured in Calligraphy, Succos 5777)
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