Gneshel liked Rabbi Spitz right from the start. He reminded her of a frog. Though he was eight inches shorter than her, had a lazy eye and a metastasizing bald patch, she liked him. Experience had taught her that he was unlikely to reciprocate the feeling. Orange juice and autumn leaves should taste the same, valentines and blood. She thought it was probably her frizzy hair or her missing fingers or her obscene posture that had put people off until now, but she was quietly confident that a day would come when she would be loved.
She didn’t bother with mirrors and suspected that they talked to one another, passing along warnings: “Pull yourself together, honey! Old Ugly-guts is on her way.” Gneshel struck terror into the hearts of Melbourne mothers, who quailed at her fountain pen, her scuffed men’s wingtips, and the round glasses that no one considered cool. The only thing she had going for her was her diligence, which sounded a bit like deviance, but without the orgasm. If there were a department store just for her type, it would be full of nerdy, unshaved librarians.
Before she left home, Gneshel’s mother sewed her five new dresses from fabric she’d pulled from boxes her mother had saved during the bombing of Darwin in the ’40s, and even after two weeks airing on the washing line, the cloth reeked of old fish. Her tights had thick seams running up the exact center of her calves. She kept a ribbed leaf from Galamarrma, Darwin’s Tree of Knowledge, on her bedside table. Her mother told her that it is always the girl who says no. Galamarrma was a banyan. A strangler fig. If she turned sideways, the wingtips were her widest part.
“Such a long way on the bus,” the resident adviser had said. Gneshel had been exhausted. Three days down from Darwin, across the Australian desert in the height of summer. The woman picked up her suitcase and carried it out to the little white Fiat. “Baila,” the woman said, extending her hand, “And this is Rabbi Spitz,” she said in the dormitory.
The Rabbi looked Gneshel up and down, his gaze resting for a long moment on her face. “You’re not what I expected,” he said, and Baila laughed and said Gneshel was just a young girl, like the others.
“Not like the others,” Rabbi Spitz said. “Are you?”
“What do you mean?”
His one good eye blinked.
“You’re older than you look.”
She was fourteen, and that very day, he asked her to come to his house and help his wife with the babies. “Shall I bake bread?” Gneshel asked. “Make pasties?” She had been living on a US military base in the Northern Territory and was a practical human being. She could knit and sew and would do so, often, for this new family. “You’re almost like an uncle,” Gneshel said to Rabbi Spitz, a couple of weeks into the school year, because he bought her ice cream and told her jokes and didn’t let her walk back to the dormitory by herself at night. “I’ve never had an uncle.” She craved his pity and couldn’t figure out why. “I love your kids. It’s hard to believe I’ll eventually love my own kids more. I wish I lived here.”
At school, the other girls griped about favoritism; none of them had been to the principal’s house even once and she worked there every day. Fraidy Spitz, the Rabbi’s wife, never visited the students and refused to hear stories about them. But at the dinner table, Rabbi Spitz talked about the girls over her protests, describing their foibles, their hairstyles, their hobbies and psychological makeup. “What’s the matter with you?” he asked his wife when she’d get up to leave the room.
Gneshel made lamingtons and pavlovas, thick vegetable soup with grated noodles and sliced apples that looked like swans, and brought them to Rabbi Spitz where he sat studying Torah. “What happened to your father?” Rabbi Spitz asked. “You never mention him.”
Each evening, after Gneshel wiped down the toilet seats and laid out the children’s clothing for the next day, the rabbi drove her back to the brick dormitory; an echoing art deco building donated by a millionaire after his child was strangled in the blinds. Once in a while, he brought her chocolates or lollies, as a reward for her hard work in his house, he said. She wasn’t paid to help, but then again, she owed him, because she could not pay for her education.
He’d taken her in as a favor to the Rabbi in Darwin, who didn’t like the idea of a Jewish soul rattling around a military base with a bunch of randy Marines and Yank support staff, especially after Gneshel’s father deliberately shot himself. He’d been horrified by the massacre in Kandahar. He knew the man who’d done it, and when he heard details about the children, their names, he grew more and more agitated until one day, bang, bang, but he’d lived and now he couldn’t remember how to speak.
Gneshel felt competent in the Spitz’s house, in the large kitchen with its good smells. She loved the red curls of the children, and the shush of Fraidy’s slippers on the floorboards, and the sense that she was finally part of a real family.
Black and white marble tiles in the foyer, a mirrored wall at the end. The triple stroller crowding the crooked hallway, toys jumbled together along the skirting boards. The wife couldn’t cope, Rabbi Spitz said. Fraidy sang Yiddish songs in her bedroom. Some days she didn’t come out. “Go away,” she whispered when Gneshel knocked to ask her what to do with the children. Later, she walked around without her headscarf, her short hair coarse and grey and matted. “Here,” Gneshel said, bringing her a brush.
Gneshel sat next to Fraidy on the older woman’s bed and, while she brushed her hair, told her funny stories about growing up in the bush: driving a truck since she was five, with wooden blocks on the accelerator and brake; the native children sitting on a branch together until the heaviest one climbed up and it broke under them; the underground cubby house she’d built in an old air raid shelter; the station manager teaching her to tie tiny messages to bees, and how she’d done it once for a talent show.
Each night at supper, the little Spitz girls prattled on about their dolls’ adventures. They tried to climb into their mother’s lap and Gneshel was told to put them back in their seats. Rabbi Spitz encouraged each girl to eat less as fat girls have a hard time getting married. He reminded his wife how thin she had been when they first met, and warned Gneshel that men lost interest when their women became disgracefully misshapen. The body produced odd fat smells. It was only thin, lithe, youthful bodies that were attractive.
Of course, they spoke about more holy matters too: the Torah reading of the week, how best to light the Sabbath candles, why women should walk behind men and not pass things directly to them, how to get rid of chametz for the upcoming holiday of Passover. You couldn’t ever learn all there was to know in Judaism, the Rabbi felt, and he never lost an opportunity to educate his brood. A good question was better than a good answer. “What living thing eats but does not excrete?” “Which non-kosher animal produces a kosher food?” Fraidy took a jar of honey from the pantry and plopped it on the Lazy Susan.
“This blue one looks good on you,” Rabbi Spitz said. He was sitting on a swivel stool outside the women’s dressing room at David Jones. “Brings out the color of your eyes.” It wasn’t modest for a Rabbi to notice the color of her eyes, let alone make comments on the much-too-tight dress. The bodice squeezed Gneshel’s chest. Her breath came high and fast.
No one else ever cared about her war-era fashions or commented on them. The more religious girls in the school suspected she was a hidden saint, one of the thirty-nine who hold up the world, but did not want to emulate her lack of style; the teachers suspected poverty or Prozac. A few weeks before Passover, Rabbi Spitz had told her that some kind soul had donated money specifically for Gneshel and that Fraidy would be taking her to get a new dress for the holiday. On the day of the planned trip, however, one of the Spitz children had woken up with explosive diarrhea and Fraidy felt she needed to stay home to deal with the outcome. Later, she discovered that the child had somehow eaten an entire bottle of chocolate-flavored laxatives, but by then, the Rabbi had already volunteered to take Gneshel shopping and they’d driven off together in the little white Fiat.
“You have no idea what you look like,” he said as they browsed the racks for modest wear, and it was true. She didn’t. She only had a cluster of snapshots arranged on the corkboard of her mind in a roughly Gneshel-shaped collage. He said he couldn’t tell what size she should wear because her regular clothing was so loose. “Do this,” he said, pressing his hands first against his waist and then against each thigh. After she hung up the dresses he’d picked out, he took off his long black coat and felt hat and put them on the other hook in her dressing room.
Awkwardness filled her and a suspicion that something was very wrong with modeling for the rabbi. The sleeve of his empty coat touching the sleeve of one of the new dresses made her sweat. At the same time, she was swamped with a great wave of adoration for him. For his kindness. For the way he noticed her when nobody else did. For the way, when he looked at her, his sagging cheeks inflated and sweat appeared on his bald spot.
The curtain on the fitting room wasn’t wide enough to reach both sides of the door. If she could see the knees of his black trousers with his fingers interlaced on top of them, wasn’t it possible that he could see her homemade cotton bloomers? With one hand, Gneshel held the curtain shut and with the other, she struggled to unzip the skirt.
“Try this,” he said, pushing a hanger past the curtain. She jumped.
“It doesn’t have sleeves.”
“You could wear it over something. Or put on a cardigan.”
In class, the Chief Rabbi of Sydney had told the girls that they should never buy immodest garments. Like the Satan dressed in a silken zupitse, these clothes were designed to seduce them away from inner restraint. First, they’d wear that clothing with a long sleeved T-shirt underneath, and the next thing you knew, the girls would be pole dancing naked.
She took the dress from Rabbi Spitz and shimmied into it, splaying her fingers over her bare shoulders. She felt naughty.
“Can I see?” he asked. “Will you show me?”
“No! Don’t look.” The air was cold. She hated air-conditioning. Just before peeling the dress off, she pressed her hands, as he had suggested, against the waist of the garment. When she looked at the price tag, her stomach leaped into her throat. She did not allow herself to look in the mirror.
“The sailor suit is best,” he said. It was pale blue, more feminine and much tighter than she normally wore. It had appropriate sleeves and a high neckline. “Your first ever shop-bought dress. Lekovod Yomtov. In honor of Passover.” She could never tell her mother.
“Aren’t you lucky!” said the saleswoman as she rang them up. “Most fathers won’t go shopping with their daughters.”
Gneshel froze. She wanted to sneak a peek at Rabbi Spitz’s face but thought that any movement at all would cause Rabbi Spitz to deny it, and then the saleswoman would leap over the counter, frothing at the mouth, yelling about Nabokov and nymphets.
“Fashion parade!” announced Fraidy when they returned. But Gneshel wouldn’t try on the dress in front of Fraidy. She was afraid that Rabbi Spitz’s wife would comment on the fit, make her return it, or perhaps, somehow, smell the changed odor of Gneshel’s sweat in the cloth and know.
At the end of every day, Rabbi Spitz waited outside the classroom for Gneshel. His car, the tiny Fiat, was hard to get into, like one of those glossy white child-sized coffins. Girls and women always rode in the back, but the seat was narrow and close to the floor and Gneshel’s knees ended up well above her shoulders. It was odd to view the road from between her knees. She was used to the view from massive armored military vehicles. Rabbi Spitz folded the passenger seat forward and she ducked under the seatbelt and swung around, using one foot as a pivot, before falling backwards onto the vinyl.
The day after they went shopping, as she pivoted, she felt something touch her ankle. Rabbi Spitz had probably dropped something and reached back right as she got into the car. Much and all as people tried to avoid touching, bodies were unreliable. Such encounters were embarrassing accidents, but also the stuff of late night giggles with friends. If only she had friends. The Spitz children talked to her, of course, and so did Fraidy. But Gneshel prayed too long and too loud. She wasn’t from an orthodox family. Their business was not jewelry or finance or groceries. It was killing. Her family members included, for goodness sakes, goyim.
“Oops,” Rabbi Spitz said shyly, pulling his hand away as if he’d burnt himself on her flesh. And then, after a moment, “It’s been a long day and I’d like to unwind before dinner. Do you mind if we take a little detour?”
He wanted to unwind with her. He didn’t want to be home with Fraidy and the children in their warren of a house. She felt like she’d swallowed a basketball. “It’s OK,” she said. “But will the drive count toward the hours I work?”
Other girls, pretty girls back home in the Northern Territory, had buzz-cut boyfriends who took them driving and even the girls here, Orthodox girls who weren’t allowed to go driving with boys, had fathers who took them places in their big Mercedes. She wanted to stick out her tongue at them all. She wanted to tell someone: he likes me.
She wondered only once, briefly, when the streetlights went on, about the propriety of riding in a car in the dark with him. She’d learned not to get into an elevator with a grown man. She would have walked up ten flights of stairs to avoid yichud with a stranger. But now, she made the excuse in her mind: Rabbi Spitz is no stranger. He’s a relative. And for the first time, she thought the word father.
“We went to pick up a meshulach at the airport,” Rabbi Spitz lied, when Fraidy asked why they were so late for dinner. “I thought he’d like to meet Gneshel, because he’s collecting money for orphans in Israel.” Gneshel wasn’t an orphan. Not really. Rabbi Spitz had, so he told Fraidy, introduced Gneshel to the meshulach as “an orphan who I have taken under my wing” and the collector had remarked on how it was one of the biggest mitzvahs to support the weak and the lowly, to adopt Jewish orphans. Gneshel peeled the dry skin from around her fingernails and put it in her macaroni. Tatie was the Yiddish word for father. Her face felt like an electric fence.
“Those suicide bombers are to blame,” said Fraidy, laying the dishrag on her knees and looking at it with a puzzled expression. “You’d never catch Jews blowing themselves up in restaurants. Such a waste of food.” She turned, opened the refrigerator and tucked the dishrag into the butter dish.
The night before Passover, after they’d wandered the house with a candle and a feather, searching for crumbs of leavened bread, Rabbi Spitz said he and the children needed haircuts. “We won’t be able to cut our hair for six weeks after the holidays,” he said, “So we’d better get it done now.” He went into the bathroom with Fraidy and closed the door. In his personal habits, he was prudish. Gneshel wrestled the children up onto the kitchen counter. “I don’t want a haircut!” wailed the oldest, kicking and twisting, her anger setting the younger ones off like firecrackers. “Leave me alone! You’re not my mother!”
“Mummy’s helping Daddy cut his own hair right now,” said Gneshel. “Just settle down for a minute.” But the child went boneless, slipped under her arm and ran into the bathroom.
“Oh, Gneshel. While you’re here, can you just get the back for me?” Rabbi Spitz held the clippers out to her. “It’s not a good time for Fraidy.”
Fraidy had looked perfectly all right during the search, but while Gneshel had been struggling with the children, she’d apparently left the bathroom and possibly even the house. “Um,” Gneshel said.
“Come on, Gneshie,” said Rabbi Spitz, smiling. One of his eyes looked at her chest; the other one looked over her shoulder and into the mirror. “Just follow the old cut.” The machine buzzed in his hand, mulched hair falling from its teeth. “Hurry up.”
“Why can’t Fraidy do it?” she asked. Where was Fraidy? And what would she think if she walked in on Gneshel cutting her husband’s hair? Contact between the sexes was strictly forbidden. Being secluded in a bathroom with a man was strictly forbidden. Gneshel wasn’t sure, but she suspected using nicknames was strictly forbidden.
“She forgot,” he said, blushing. “Gneshele.” He seemed to be asking her for help, for understanding of some kind.
The religion was so mysterious and so full of rules. She was just beginning to think that it was forbidden for married women to handle clipping sheers when he sighed and turned off the power. “Go out,” he said to his child and closed the door behind the small buttocks. He sighed and turned to Gneshel.
“A woman can’t touch her husband while she’s menstruating.” He said menstruating as if he’d never before said the word aloud. “And for seven days afterwards. Fraidy forgot that she can’t help me right now.”
“Why?” Gneshel asked, her face burning.
“It’s the medication. It’s destroying her mind,” he began, but she said, “No. Why can’t your own wife touch you?” He sputtered out some explanation about holiness and impurity, health and God and public opinion.
“Not even a hug when you are sad?” she asked.
“It’s late,” he said. “I can’t go to synagogue like this. Please.”
Cutting the back of his hair. His pale tender neck. The vibration in her hand that traveled all through her body. Women are considered impure until they go to the mikvah. Fraidy goes each month, but Gneshel, a girl, has never been to the ritual bath. It would be an open invitation to the Satan, to fill that empty space with filth. This constant thought: if his wife is not allowed to touch him, then why does he allow me? Why? The only girl a man may always touch, regardless of menstrual state, is his own daughter.
Every slight noise from outside the door killing her. People were excommunicated for less. She tried not to touch him with her hands. Only with the teeth of the machine. His skin, though, was warm. When she turned off the clippers and passed them back to him, his hand missed the connection and bumped into her chest.
“Thank you,” he said. “You’re going to make someone a very happy man.” His hand, his mouth, the clippers, all seemed to be moving in slow motion. The lightbulbs were all extinguished except for one, directly above his face. The room so dark. A single drop of water trembled on the lip of the faucet.
Like a child, she wanted to pluck his shiny black eyes and put them in her pocket.
“Would you like me to cut the back of your hair?” he asked. Her mother told her that it is always the girl who says no. Ficus virens, banyan tree, strangler fig, home. This house, silent, seemed to have fallen into a coma.
After Passover, Rabbi Spitz received a letter from her mother and showed it to her. How wonderful, it said, the interest you have taken in my daughter and how kind of you to allow her to stay at your home during the holidays. I believe there are lasting benefits to a friendship between a young woman and an older mentor. These days, when so many people are pointing their fingers at the clergy, it seems they have forgotten that an older man is more careful than a young boy off the streets. Thank you for filling the empty space in Geraldine’s life.
Her mother still called her by her English name, Geraldine, and Gneshel snorted when she read it. She was no longer that girl from Darwin who cut her own hair and thought deodorant was a bad tasting novelty candy. She no longer saw Fraidy’s grey hair and trembling hands. The deflated belly which had once held the children. Her eyes skipped past the older woman as if she were the fussy lace curtains in front of a view of the alps.
Aware that she desires some response from him, Gneshel, at forty, leans back from the empty monitor and frowns. Her email was innocuous. It was titled “Hello.” The single paragraph started kindly, a lure to suck him into something else entirely. Surely he must have read it by now?
The study where she works is a second-floor room in her dingy Bondi terrace house. Country Swedish crossed with bargain basement and lit with brass mirrors and candles; a single chair from the seventeenth century, spine jarring and impractical, serving her need to channel Emily Dickinson. Her fingers blotched with ink leaked from her fountain pen. There are droplets across the wooden floorboards too.
Does he think it is spam, perhaps? Or has he mistaken Gneshel for some other Gneshel? She takes off her glasses and rereads the sent email. Her eyesight, recently, is failing.
She is an emaciated, blurred woman, bones as brittle as sugar cookies, no jewelry, no bust, her shoes still a pair of scuffed men’s wingtips. She checks her emails obsessively, as she writes for a number of papers and edits come in at all hours. Two years ago, her husband of seven years left her for a younger, womanly woman, also leaving her the three children and a tiny weekly maintenance check. The house seems big without the unruly presence of the ex, and the children have begun to sound more like her, quieter, less sure. When matchmakers ask her what she’s looking for in a man, she says she will never marry again, and the look on her face causes them to back away.
Her four-year-old plays under her feet, his shaven head bare, his yarmulke lost. He rubs her feet, asking if it feels good and he smiles when she nods. “Take off your socks,” he says, tugging at them.
Gneshel leans back, enjoying the massage; glad she rubbed her three children with almond oil every day when they were infants. She’d seen women sitting in doorways in India, kneading the lush baby flesh of the children that lay in their laps, and the sight had inspired her nineteen-year-old self, convinced her that touch could be pleasant. It had been the radiant faces of the children that caught her attention. Her socks are cashmere; she loves the softness against her skin.
Her son peels off the socks and flexes her toes. She likes being manipulated by his small fingers and sits still, looking out the window to the backyard. The tree peonies are blooming, all of them, and she is reminded that she needs to prune them. The garden hasn’t been tended in the two years since the divorce and it’s overgrown. She doesn’t mind too much. She is glad no one can see in the windows of her house or spy on her as she sits in the yard; privacy pleases her, and quiet. She used to wear a long wig and let the hair hang over her eyes.
She leans down and kisses her son on his head. The boy looks up, a sock draped on one ear. A cold draft from the window raises gooseflesh on her arms.
Her email is still there, open on her computer, which sits to one side of the window. It’s only words. But there’s that last sentence.
Things were done.
These words remind her of the man. His head of black hair, the lazy eye, the sparse beard, the fingers blunt as bread knives. His way of speaking without accepting responsibility or blame, his mouth, hidden behind the mustache, a slash in a side of raw beef.
Even as she says it, she shunts her son out the door. There is a lurch in her step, a snag in her heartbeat, she bolts the door and lays her fingers over her lips.
“Bastard,” she says. “I sound just like you.”
The garden is messier than she remembers, rose canes tangled in the grevillea. Under the wisteria arbor, she sits playing with the buttons on her linen shirt. It’s the man and all that she does not wish to allow back into her mind that has her hand so busy. The bench is uncomfortable, the wooden slats digging into her buttocks. Soon, she’s up and walking again.
There’d been a call from the chief rabbi, Rabbi Karismikov, of course there had. Telling her Rabbi Spitz had lost his job, and that had been some vindication. “Yes, other girls have come forward,” Rabbi Karismikov had said on the phone, ten years ago now. “He’s been relieved of his position. There won’t be any more trouble. The family’s been told he’s had a mental breakdown. Seemed best.”
Under the apple, there’s a stone owl Gneshel likes, the marks of the chisel visible in the granite. She remembers the Rabbi’s little girls, their curls and their laughter. Their love of their father. The owl is surrounded by iris she planted the last spring she was in the garden and they are just beginning to bloom: Wings over Water and Caesar’s Brother. Their almost black petals electric above the coarse rhubarb leaves. Peeking out from under the rhubarb are promiscuous violets she’s never seen before.
Bending, she picks a handful of the flowers. She’s told a few people, just a few, about the years she was in Rabbi Spitz’s school. Details about their nightly rides, his habit of touching her ankle as she got out of the back of the two-door car. The Sydney Jews had, after several months, raised their eyebrows; the car rides a behavior highly unusual in the Chassidic world. There had been suggestions that something unseemly was going on between them.
A magpie trills from the lemon-scented gum. Gneshel stands still, spotting him amongst the leaves. The birds are recovering at last from the ravages of her un-belled cat. She smiles at the bird, as she smiled at her son earlier, glad for the diversion.
Magpie. In her notebook, she writes that simple observation and the date. Noticing, awareness, help her to remain in the present. “He’s not a monster, you know,” Rabbi Karismikov said when she’d called him back. No. It was not Rabbi Spitz that was the monster.
Wind rushes in through the window and scatters a pile of bills Gneshel has stacked on the desk and for a moment she busies herself with collecting the papers and weighting them with a rock. It’s heavy, a great chunk of Italian marble, and she drops it.
There had been black and white marble tiles in the foyer and a mirrored wall at the end; the triple stroller crowded the crooked hallway, toys jumbled together along the skirting boards. Fraidy couldn’t cope, Rabbi Spitz said. Their house was more real to her than her own.
She wanted to blame him.
When he pulled her against him one day in his office and pressed his lips hard against hers, she’d been dreaming about this closer touch for weeks. There’d been something rigid pressed against her belly too. He did not kiss like the men in movies or even like the young men she’d seen kissing their girlfriends in the street. He kissed like it hurt, and it did. “You want this,” he said. “Don’t you.” Later, he’d sat her on his lap and moved her back and forth there, in silence, with one hand over her mouth. The hand was entirely unnecessary. She’d wondered if anyone could see them through the window. The kindergarten building was no more than thirty feet away. A child, playing outside, stopped and stared in her direction. Afterwards, silently, he pushed the shulchan aruch, the Code of Jewish Law, across to her. “Read it,” he said. “I want you to know that what we are doing is forbidden. On pain of death.”
“But you are my father,” she said.
“No,” he said. “I am not. “
Gneshel hid from him for days after that. She walked right past him as he waited outside her classroom. She didn’t return to the Spitz’s house. Towards the end of the year, Gneshel’s mother became concerned. Gneshel hadn’t sent her a letter in several months. Something is wrong, she wrote to Rabbi Spitz. Even her father is disturbed. The girl we know would never do this. Is she pregnant?
Gneshel, always quiet, rarely spoke anymore; she walked with her shoulders hunched, her eyes on the ground. She bound her chest with an ace bandage she stole from the school nurse. She stopped wearing the clothes Rabbi Spitz had bought for her, and began, again, wearing her mother’s military creations, un-ironed.
Later, she had not wanted to get married, despite the intense community expectation that, by twenty-two, she should already have a child. She did not have friends. Young men seemed bumbling in their pursuit, unsubtle in their glances. Always, always, two phantom holes appeared in their foreheads. If a matchmaker approached her in the aisles of the kosher superette, she held a box of noodles in front of her face and squinted at it, pretending to be blind. Every so often, she did not come in to her job editing a messianic children’s magazine. She would take the bus out to the country and get off in some small, unfamiliar town and spend the day sitting under a tree. The magazine didn’t dock her pay.
Downstairs, now, her children are fighting over the frying pan. She puts her head on her arms and tries to sleep. Screams awaken her moments later: one child has hit the other with a wooden spoon. She sends them back to the kitchen, forgetting, almost instantly, what they came to her about.
When she decided to send the letter to Rabbi Karismikov in Sydney describing what had happened, she did not mention her own part in it. Even after she heard Rabbi Spitz had been dismissed and the family had fallen on hard times, she put away all thought of how she had craved his attention. For a time at least, she had been able to throw off the memories of her own desire.
In her kitchen, the light is hazy. A light bulb needs to be changed but she doesn’t have one in the house. A pall of smoke from burning olive oil hangs just below the ceiling, the older children lean against the counter, shoving at one another with wordless hostility. The youngest sits inside the pantry cupboard, counting out pieces of dried macaroni. What food, Gneshel frets, do the Spitzs eat now that their father has no job?
Gneshel wants to exclude herself. She was the victim, she was preyed upon, she didn’t like it, she was too young to know better. She wants to be innocent. She told the story as if she were innocent and everyone had believed her. The risk of the truth being discovered is still part of the bond that binds him to her.
Dressing her children for school the next morning, Gneshel regrets not saying more. What she wrote was too generic, not flirtatious in the way she knows he likes. Too easy to brush off. The children fumble the buttons, tuck in their shirts. She kisses them goodbye. The youngest wipes away the dampness from his cheek. The spring air blows the smell of wet soil in through the front door. A pile of new bills flutters to the floor.
Her neighbor, a bent and thin man, walks past and raises his hand, and she, as always, turns away. She has some friends now, just a few, and they get together at a local coffee shop once a week. Occasionally, she visits one of them at home, but it leaves her feeling claustrophobic, entering other people’s houses. She looks forward to the coffee shop, but casual intimacies are still entangled with memories of him. She’d give almost anything to be loved like that again.
Another neighbor passes in the street and Gneshel closes the front door, so as not to be seen. She climbs the stairs to her study, away from the morning rush of pedestrians, looking for that solitude which she finds so soothing. He still hasn’t responded to her email. Perhaps she should write again? It can be accomplished even as she stares out the window at the untidy garden.