He’s mopping at his pelvis with a wadded-up tissue, and then he’s mopping her up as well. Already the backs of her thighs are caking up.
Courtesy of Irina Rozovsky, from One to Nothing
It’s six-thirty now and the boys are back in bed; it’s early afternoon Israel time. For the moment, Noelle feels as if she’s in a bubble, lying awake next to Amram while the children are asleep. She presses her ear to the wall to see if her sisters are awake; it’s been a fitful night for them too.
She rolls over onto her stomach and back again. She wonders what she looks like from up on the ceiling, lying sleepless in her childhood bed. This is where she spent summer after summer. And Christmas vacation and spring break. Amram, who has risen, is in a T-shirt and cutoff jeans, his thighs thick as ham hocks, his prayer fringes sticking out from under his shirt, twisted as always around his belt loops. His yarmulke, blown by the breeze coming through the open window, flips over itself so that it’s barely hanging from a few tendrils of hair; it droops to the side like a single earmuff.
For Amram, there’s nothing worse than an academic, even an academic like Nathaniel, who rarely talks about his work. If anything, that makes Nathaniel more detestable.
He’s standing now with his ear to the wall. “Your brother-in-law’s awake.” He says these words with such derision Noelle is forced to remind him that Nathaniel is his brother-in-law, too.
“Ah, yes,” Amram says. “The fucking genius. He’s in lecture mode again.”
“Come on, Amram. When has Nathaniel ever lectured you?”
“His very existence is one big lecture.”
“He’s one of the most unassuming people I know.”
But it’s his very unassuming nature that assails Amram. Amram has a history of hating the smart kids, starting in high school and continuing into college, at SUNY Oneonta, where only by studying hard did he pull B’s. Even at yeshiva, he resented the students who picked up the Talmud’s logic faster than he could, and he would compensate for his weaker analytic skills with more strenuous religious devotion. For Amram, there’s nothing worse than an academic, even an academic like Nathaniel, who rarely talks about his work. If anything, that makes Nathaniel more detestable. Amram sees Nathaniel’s regular-guy manner as a form of pretension; it’s his way of mocking Amram. “If everyone was telling you you’d win the Nobel Prize, would you be modest?”
“I hope I would.” But the truth is, Noelle doesn’t know. It’s beyond her ability to imagine winning the Nobel Prize. Even contemplating it is ridiculous.
“Clarissa acts like his PR rep.”
“She’s proud of him, Amram. I’d be proud of you, too, if you won a prize. I’m already proud of you.”
“Just for being who you are.”
She rests her hand on Amram’s shoulder, and for a second he allows her to leave it there, but then he brushes it off. “Whose side are you on, anyway?”
. . . It’s true, that she’s on his side, of course. She loves him: he’s her husband.
“Why do there have to be sides?” But then she adds, because it’s true, that she’s on his side, of course. She loves him: he’s her husband.
He goes out onto the balcony, where, with his back to her, he smokes a cigarette. She wishes he wouldn’t smoke, especially not at her parents’ house. She herself has resolved not to smoke this holiday; she doesn’t want her mother to judge her. Or to judge Amram either. She will criticize Amram, but if anyone else criticizes him, especially someone in her family, she’ll rush to his defense.
Back in their bedroom, Amram gets down on the floor and does fifty pushups and fifty sit-ups, then follows those with one-handed push- ups, ten with his left hand, ten with his right, the way he was taught in the Israeli army. An oleh at twenty-eight, he could have served in the army for only a few months, but he wasn’t interested in cutting short his duties; if anything, he’d have liked to do the full three-year stint required of Israeli eighteen-year-olds. But Noelle persuaded him to serve only a year and a half. He’s a man of routine. He does the same number of pushups and sit-ups every morning, takes the same route to synagogue each Shabbat, and Noelle always packs him the same lunch: a turkey sandwich on rye, two pickles—one sour, one half-sour—a bag of corn chips, a piece of marble cake, an Orangina.
“Help me stretch.” Amram lies on his back, his knees bent, his soles planted firmly on the floor. He ran twelve miles the other day, and he’s still suffering the consequences. He’s a weekend warrior, only those weekends have been coming less and less often. He won’t exercise for weeks, and then, inspired one day to go for a jog, he figures that, since he’s at it already, he might as well run ten, fifteen miles. Then he’ll spend the next week recuperating. Now he’s enlisted Noelle in his recovery: the lady he saws in half. Except she worries she’ll saw him in half, or, at the very least, that she’ll injure him doing what he tells her to do. Right now, she’s pushing so hard against his thigh it’s as if she’s trying to budge a stalled car. “Amram, I’m no good at this.”
“Actually, you’re quite good. I can feel the muscles being stretched.”
“Why don’t you hire yourself a personal trainer?”
“Because it would be expensive to fly him here, don’t you think? Other leg,” he says, grabbing hold of his left knee and pushing it toward the right one. “Okay,” he says, “that’s enough.”
He checks his stocks on the computer. His portfolio is small, but he follows it closely. He can talk at length about the companies he has invested in, and he keeps his holdings for the long term—he’s resistant to admitting a mistake—with the kind of determination that some might find pigheaded but that Noelle sees as evidence of more general loyalty. He’s always invoking Warren Buffett, whose newsletter he subscribes to. He’s a very poor man’s Warren Buffett, but this makes him no less dedicated to his principles.
Noelle flips through the Berkshire Eagle, which someone has left up in their room. She’s checking out the TV listings. “Look what’s playing tonight. Another one of those Entebbe movies.”
“Surprise, surprise,” Amram says. “They turn our heroism into entertainment while they rebuke us at the UN.”
Noelle doesn’t disagree. But she’d rather not agitate him now. Already, he seems riled up. “Do you want to watch it?”
Amram shrugs. It’s been twenty-nine years since Entebbe. It’s one of Noelle’s early memories, America’s bicentennial, up in Lenox for the Fourth of July, she and her sisters eating roast beef sandwiches while in the background the TV played. She recalls the footage of the boats tacking up the Hudson, then the news reports breaking in, her parents cheering at the announcement that Israeli commandos had stormed the airport and saved the hostages. A hopeless raid in a hostile country, Idi Amin providing haven for the PLO. Noelle can’t explain it, but she felt pride watching TV that day, as if she were Israeli and this was already her homeland, the instinctive sense of belonging in a country she didn’t even know. In the years that followed, when those TV movies kept being played, she would stay up past her bedtime to watch, in defiance of her parents’ orders. She can still see the flight taking off, the camera scanning the rows of seats, knowing there are hijackers in the cabin, but who they are she can only guess. Then the hijackers commandeer the plane and hold guns to everyone’s heads and they’re screaming things in a language she doesn’t understand. Even now, when she wants to irk her mother, she’ll say, “I’m in Israel because of you, Mom. I saw you cheering that day in front of the TV, and I got inspired.”
It seemed for an instant as if her name had set off something, and Noelle wondered, Does he remember me? The girl who slept with half the class?
In her closet, she finds her old wedding dress hanging in plastic. It’s the one from her first engagement, before she met Amram. Amram knows she was engaged, but he doesn’t like to talk about it, and the truth is, neither does she. He’s across the room from her now, and a feeling of revulsion sideswipes her. “I like you better in Israel,” she says.
“Well, I like you better in Israel, too.”
Israel is where they met, a Friday night at the Wailing Wall, a group of American backpackers congregating in the shadows behind the men lining up to pray. A few of the Americans were playing hacky sack, and Amram, trying to get into the mood of things, removed a harmonica and piped out a tune.
Noelle, smoking a cigarette, watched him from the steps where she was sitting. “I know you,” she said. “You’re Arthur Glucksman. Mamaroneck High School, class of eighty-five? You were in my sister Lily’s class. I’m Noelle Frankel.” Between them, like a wreath of smoke itself, a group of yeshiva students danced up the steps of the Old City.
It seemed for an instant as if her name had set off something, and Noelle wondered, Does he remember me? The girl who slept with half the class? Would she never be able to escape that? But if that was what he was thinking, he didn’t let on. He just continued to play his harmonica, and soon he was accosted by a guard, who told him there was no harmonica playing at the Wailing Wall, that playing music was forbidden on the Sabbath.
Meanwhile, another guard approached Noelle and told her to extinguish her cigarette. Smoking wasn’t allowed on the Sabbath, either.
“That’s another thing we have in common,” Arthur said. “We both broke the rules.”
“And to think,” Noelle said, “that I flew all the way to Jerusalem just to be a bad Jew.”
“And to think,” Noelle said, “that I flew all the way to Jerusalem just to be a bad Jew.”
“When you could have been a bad Jew in Mamaroneck.” “Or a thousand other places.”
The Old City, Noelle had heard, specialized in bad Jews. She knew the stories about Friday night at the Wailing Wall, rabbis inviting you for a Sabbath meal, and one rabbi in particular, a charismatic American who was legendary among the local backpackers for retrieving lost souls. “Is that what we look like?” Noelle said to Arthur. “Lost souls?”
Arthur shrugged. He said he was happy to look like anything if there was a home-cooked meal in the bargain. He hadn’t had one in months. So they ended up at the rabbi’s house, a large building made of Jerusalem stone from whose living room window you could see the Wailing Wall itself. Noelle and Arthur and ten other lost souls, all being fed by the rabbi’s wife, the rebbetzin, who brought out chicken soup and gefilte fish and roast chicken and noodle kugel (so people really did eat these things, Noelle thought; it wasn’t just something you saw in the movies), and presently the rabbi was singing Hebrew songs and the rebbetzin was serving poppy-seed cake. The rabbi spoke about the weekly Torah portion, how Jacob wrestled with the angel and injured his sciatic nerve and after that he was called Israel, not Jacob.
When dinner was over, Noelle and Arthur said goodbye, and they walked through the hushed, redolent streets of the Old City. “Lookie here,” Arthur said, and he opened up his coat flap to reveal the bottle of Manischewitz wine. He’d filched it right off the rabbi’s table.
Noelle laughed. “If you ask me, a certain someone isn’t getting invited back to the rabbi’s house.”
“At least we got a souvenir.”
They passed the Wailing Wall once more, and Arthur, feeling glad-hearted and transgressive, took out his harmonica and began to play again.
“Arthur, you’ll get yourself arrested. I’ll have to bail you out.”
“I bet I’m the first person to play the harmonica at the Wailing Wall.”
“So be it.” He played a few more notes. “I bet I’m the first person to play the harmonica at the Wailing Wall.”
“Are you kidding me? It’s probably been done hundreds of times. Maybe even thousands.”
“Come on,” he said. “Humor me.”
“Okay,” she said, “you’re the first person to play the harmonica at the Wailing Wall.”
“Not the harmonica. Lynyrd Skynyrd. On the Sabbath. In defiance of Jewish law. And badly.”
Noelle laughed. “You’re right. No one’s played it this badly.” She held her black pumps in one fist, Arthur’s hand in the other, and they walked through the Old City, back to Arthur’s sublet apartment.
And there it was. A single Bunsen burner in what passed for a kitchen. And, in the main room, a futon and an armchair with one of the arms missing. “I figure it’s the Middle East,” Arthur said. “I’m lucky the building has a roof.”
That night, standing in the dim light of Arthur’s bathroom, using a toothbrush he’d given her, Noelle said, “Look at my teeth.”
“They’re beautiful,” Arthur said.
That’s what everyone told her. The stuff of mouthwash commercials: lovely Noelle with the smile like meringue. Her teeth, her hair, her breasts, her buttocks: every piece of her like the cut of a cow. She could hear the boys’ voices, the sound of them so loud they drowned out everything else. “For a time I was studying to be a dental hygienist, but I made people’s gums bleed.”
“Isn’t that what you’re supposed to do?”
“I did it more,” she said. “I did it worse.”
“So what happened?”
“I quit. In high school, I used to cut my sisters’ hair, and everyone complimented them on it, so I enrolled in beauty school. But I quit that too. I’ve spent my whole life quitting things. What about you?”
“What have I quit?”
“First law school, then accounting. Do you think the rabbi sensed something about us?”
“What do you mean?”
“I don’t consider myself a lost soul, but my parents moved to Arizona to play golf and gin rummy, and my sister is in Seattle, married to a banker, and if I don’t ever see them again—if the entire U.S. were to fall into the Pacific—I wouldn’t be the worse for it.”
No one in Israel wears a tie (Amram himself doesn’t even own one any longer), but the following night Arthur showed up at the youth hostel where Noelle was staying wearing a starched white shirt and a navy print necktie, holding a pint of cherry tomatoes.
Noelle slept with Arthur that night, because there had never been a first night when she didn’t sleep with the guy (lately she’d been trying to find a reason, but there was never a good reason, and she didn’t want to seem like a tease), but the next morning Arthur said he wanted to take her on a proper date. No one in Israel wears a tie (Amram himself doesn’t even own one any longer), but the following night Arthur showed up at the youth hostel where Noelle was staying wearing a starched white shirt and a navy print necktie, holding a pint of cherry tomatoes. “For you,” he said. “I was planning to get flowers, but the florist was closed.”
Noelle laughed. “You’re sweet, Arthur.”
“My last girlfriend told me I was sweet and anxious.”
“That’s my favorite combination.”
They planned to see a movie that night, but when they got to the theater, it was sold out. “What bad luck,” Arthur said. “No flowers, no movies.”
So they settled for eating fish and chips at a restaurant on Ben Yehuda Street, where they sat outside under a blue and white umbrella, the colors of the Israeli flag. Afterward, they got lost wandering along Jaffa Street, through the back alleys lined with cats, and soon they came upon a fortuneteller who, for twenty shekels, promised to read their palms.
“Let’s do it,” Noelle said. She dropped a twenty-shekel bill in front of the woman, who scooped it up like a hunk of bread. Then she took Noelle’s hand, gazed at it for a minute, and said in a language Noelle had only just started to learn, Kol chaya’yich tihiyi smeicha.
All your life you will be joyous.
She’d been taken for a ride, Noelle understood, but she didn’t care. She was with Arthur, getting lost in a city thousands of years old, and it made her feel older herself, less likely to be carried off by the things that had always carried her.
The following Friday night, she and Arthur returned to the rabbi’s house, where another bottle of Manischewitz sat on the table, and this time they didn’t steal it. The Sabbath after that they went back again, and the one after that, too, and soon they were seeing the rabbi not just on Friday nights but on an occasional weeknight, staying up late to study the weekly Torah portion. Before long, Noelle had enrolled in a yeshiva for women and Arthur had enrolled in a yeshiva for men; slowly, they were taking on the strictures of religious observance. Noelle stopped eating bacon and shrimp; Arthur, in a ritual of mock ceremony, announced to Noelle one day that she was witnessing him eat his final cheeseburger, and when he got to the last bite she stood up and cheered.
She felt as if they were on a venture together (even now, she can’t imagine having taken this journey without Amram at her side), and also that she was peeling back layers of herself, molting an identity she had wanted to molt for years and hadn’t realized she was capable of molting. Six hours after they’d met she and Arthur were having sex, but now, eight months later, they stopped sleeping together because they weren’t married. They shared a bed but they didn’t have intercourse, and soon they stopped sleeping in the same bed, and then they stopped touching altogether. Noelle knew what others would say, that her newfound chastity was just another side of the same coin, but she didn’t care. She had finally found something she could claim as her own. It was as if she’d unhusked herself, and this was what lay beneath it. She was joyous: the fortuneteller had been right.
One day Arthur said, “I’m changing my name. From now on, I’m calling myself Amram.”
“Okay, Amram,” Noelle said, trying it on for size. Arthur was like Jacob changing his name, and he hadn’t even had to wrestle an angel, hadn’t wound up with an injured sciatic nerve.
Early on, Noelle and Arthur had gone to the beach, where he dragged her out into the waves. His Hebrew was still better than hers, and he spit water out of his mouth and shouted Hebrew words to her, and she was supposed to shout them back: they were conjugating Hebrew verbs. And there was Arthur’s voice as he emerged from the water—pagashti, pagashta, pagasht, pagash, pagsha, pagashnu, pagashtem, pagashten, pagshu, pagshu—and Noelle, emerging from the water herself, was repeating after him. Then Arthur was hit by a wave, and suddenly Noelle said, “Wait a minute, Arthur. You don’t know how to swim! You could drown!”
“At least I’ll die knowing you learned Hebrew.”
Noelle, dragging him back to shore, felt a warmth rise in her. Arthur had risked his life for her; she knew right then that she loved him.
She still loves him. But it’s different now, and sometimes when she sees Amram in the pool with their boys, her husband who doesn’t know how to swim, but who nonetheless insists on teaching them swimming, she remembers differently what happened at the beach—remembers less the fact that Amram risked his life for her than that he was teaching her how to conjugate Hebrew verbs, that he always has to have the answers.
It’s worse when he’s in the States, an entire country where he doesn’t know how to swim. In Israel, they have their life, they have their friends, they have their routine, they have their customs, but here in the States, and especially in Lenox with her sisters and parents, she finds herself growing embarrassed by him. Where, she wonders, was the young man she met, Arthur, at twenty-seven, sweet and anxious, giving her that box of cherry tomatoes? He’s immersed beneath layers, covered in the sediment of what he has become, the sweetness eclipsed by something else, the anxiety redirected into bullying.
She’s making a list of the things she loves about him, but the very act of making lists ruins things for her. Because if she really loved him, loved him the way she loves him when she’s not making lists, she wouldn’t need to make them.
Now, in her old bedroom, she reminds herself of the ways she still loves him. How he reads to her in bed at night, only the little penlight illuminating the page, how he continues to read to her after she’s gone to sleep because she likes to hear his voice in her dreams. How every anniversary he buys her a stuffed animal, and now there are ten of them at the foot of their bed, one for each year of their marriage. Last week, when she came down with a fever, he went out at three in the morning in the rain, driving vainly through the desolate streets, searching for an open pharmacy. In those early months, he would take her dancing, though he didn’t like to dance, his feet on the dance floor moving this way and that, his arms jerking up and down like a robot’s. How he can pop open a bottle of champagne and catch the cork in his mouth. On her thirty-fifth birthday someone in a gorilla suit walked into her classroom and strung a wreath of bananas around her neck; the gorilla, it turned out, was Amram. How he can’t wink, though he tries to—he holds his hand over one eye and winks with the other one—and she loves that about him, loves the fact that he can’t wink, because she’s never trusted winkers. How one time when she needed to pee and the women’s room was locked, he stood guard outside the men’s room while she went, shouting, “Sick lady, sick lady, out of the way, sick lady!” How they were in a restaurant when there was a bomb scare and he rushed her and the boys out to make sure they were safe, then returned to the restaurant to help out. How in another restaurant, just weeks ago, they were out on a date, eating Chinese food, and when their fortune cookies arrived she asked him to switch fortunes with her, sight unseen. “Your fortune is my fortune,” Amram said, handing her his cookie—her handsome husband like the biblical Ruth, Your people are my people, your God is my God. How he can change a diaper with a hand behind his back. How one time he tried to do it with his feet—poor Akiva!—and she was behind him in their son’s bedroom, cheering him on. How he got her that box of cherry tomatoes.
But doing this feels self-defeating. She’s making a list of the things she loves about him, but the very act of making lists ruins things for her. Because if she really loved him, loved him the way she loves him when she’s not making lists, she wouldn’t need to make them. In Jerusalem, she thinks, she doesn’t need to make lists.
Amram is standing outside on the balcony, smoking another cigarette. She calls out to him, but he doesn’t hear her. “I wish you wouldn’t smoke,” she says, but her voice is too soft to carry through the glass door and she doesn’t want to wake the rest of her family. “I’m sorry,” she says, but this, too, he doesn’t hear. She’s a smoker herself; she knows how hard it is to quit, and in a way, she doesn’t want to. Neither does Amram. They like to smoke. They just don’t like that they like to smoke, like even less that their children know they smoke, so they do it out of sight, the way they did growing up. All those years you hide things from your parents until you start to hide things from your children. They’re romantics, besides, when it comes to smoking. They’ve given up so much; it’s one thing they wish to hold on to. That and Amram’s motorcycle, which he drives around Jerusalem. Noelle comes along, too; in her dresses and head scarves, her long-sleeved blouses, she rides with her arms wrapped around Amram, who’s decked out himself in religious garb, a baseball cap on his head so his yarmulke won’t fall off, his prayer fringes dancing to the sides of him. It makes them complicated, she thinks. Or maybe it just makes them a mess.
“Hey, you,” she calls out. If they could just connect a tube from his brain to hers, if she could know his thoughts, share them, if they could be like conjoined twins, one brain for a single organism. She doesn’t mind feeling alone when she’s alone; it’s when she’s not alone and feels alone that she grows desperate. “Come to bed with me.”
“It’s seven-thirty in the morning,” Amram says. “The kids will be up soon.”
“I just want to hold you.” He’s her husband, she thinks, but it’s been months since they’ve held each other. She wants that, certainly, but she also wants sex, because sex has always been a kind of forgetting. When it happens, Amram is touching her there and he’s touching her there and he’s touching her there, and she’s retreating into nothing but skin and nerves, everything obliterated into sweet thoughtlessness.
Amram sits on the bed in his T-shirt and dungaree cutoffs, his prayer fringes draped across him. Now he strings the fringes over the nightstand. He’s lying beside her with his hand on her stomach.
She sits up.
“What are you doing?”
“Taking my clothes off.” He hesitates.
“It’s just so sudden, that’s all.”
He’s staring at her as she undresses, and she feels an awkwardness overtake her and she wants to cover herself. It kills her to feel this way, in front of her own husband.
“What’s wrong with sex at seven-thirty in the morning?” Most men prefer sex in the morning. At least that’s been her experience.
He’s staring at her as she undresses, and she feels an awkwardness overtake her and she wants to cover herself. It kills her to feel this way, in front of her own husband.
“The boys are down the hall,” he says.
“In Jerusalem they’re down the hall, too.” In Jerusalem, in fact, they’re even closer to them.
“They’re on Israel time,” Amram says. “It’s afternoon for them now.”
“I checked on them earlier. They’re out cold.”
He looks out the window, to where he was standing before. “I’m not in the right mood. It’s not the right moment.”
“That’s what you always say.”
“I can’t help it. It’s true.”
She sits on the bed, half undressed.
“We could try tonight,” he says. “We could go to bed early.”
“And then tonight will come and you’ll suggest tomorrow night instead. It’s never the right mood.”
He doesn’t respond.
“Something has happened to your sex drive, Amram.”
“That’s not true.”
But it is true. Or, if it’s not true, then something else has happened. Already the laws of family purity are designed to help the mood. For the five days of her menstrual period and seven days afterward, she and Amram are forbidden to have sex. Then she goes to the mikvah and comes back clean; they’re supposed to be rejuvenated.
“There’s nothing wrong with my sex drive,” Amram says. He’s sitting up now, looking as if he might walk away.
“Okay,” she says, because she doesn’t want to fight about this. Besides, it’s not the route she wants to take. It might make him have sex with her, but it would be for the wrong reason. He’d be proving something to himself, and so in a way it would be as if he were having sex with himself, which would be worse than not having sex at all.
But it’s too late—her insinuation has worked—because Amram is unbuttoning his dungarees, saying, “We can try.”
“Isn’t that what you wanted?”
It was what she wanted. And she’s thinking about what her rabbi said, Me’toch she’lo l’shma ba l’shma. If you start to do something not for its own sake, you will eventually do it for its own sake. The rabbi was talking about Torah study, but can’t it be true, Noelle thinks, for sex as well?
She’s naked now beneath the covers, and Amram is naked, too, but there’s a noise downstairs, a clanking of pipes. She hears the bathroom door open and the sink go on. The sound of the television comes up from the living room.
Amram is on top of her now, the weight of him square on her, and Noelle, gasping for breath as he pushes down on her solar plexus, says, “Good God, Amram, what did you eat last night?”
“Go easy on me. I’m a featherweight here.”
He’s utterly still, poised above her, his arms taut against the mattress, bearing his bulk. He rolls off her.
“I’ve been trying to lose weight.”
“I was kidding.”
“No you weren’t.”
“Amram, please. I’m sorry.”
He rolls over onto his back and stares up at the ceiling. His hands are clasped behind his neck.
“I apologize,” she says. “That wasn’t fair.”
He allows her to mount him, but he’s cold beneath her, his gaze slack, his heart beating dully against her chest.
“You don’t think I’m attractive,” he says.
“That’s not true.”
“Remember when you said you didn’t like the hair on my shoulders?”
“I was joking.”
He thrusts—once, twice, three times, four times—but there’s an obligatory cast to the movement
“I don’t even remember having said that.”
He’s inside her now, though he’s still half dressed, his T-shirt on one shoulder and off the other, his boxers coiling around themselves, down at his ankles. He thrusts—once, twice, three times, four times—but there’s an obligatory cast to the movement.
She takes his face in her hands. “Look at me, Amram. Please look at me.”
His elbow knocks into her rib cage. “Ouch!”
“Are you all right?”
“No,” she says, “I’m not.”
“Well, okay. I’m sorry.”
She rolls back on top of him, but he’s just lying beneath her, unmoving, his palms placed against her ribs, as if he’s preparing to push her away.
A moment passes, and he does just that.
“I need to go to the bathroom.”
She waits for him, lying as still as she can, as if by not moving she will make him come back to her.
But when he returns he says, “Great, I’m not hard.” He guides her hand to his penis, which, sure enough, is shriveled as a fig. She flinches at the touch of it.
“You could use your mouth.”
She hesitates: oral sex is prohibited by Jewish law. The spilling of seed, like Onan.
She doesn’t want Amram’s semen in her mouth—the very thought of it repulses her—and now her jaw is bumping against his pubic bone and she feels his hair, rough as steel wool against her chin.
But Amram assures her he won’t come. “It’s just to get me going.” She tries to go down on him, but she feels self-conscious. She hasn’t done this in years, not on him, not on anyone. She doesn’t want Amram’s semen in her mouth—the very thought of it repulses her—and now her jaw is bumping against his pubic bone and she feels his hair, rough as steel wool against her chin. She takes him in her mouth, and her head is going up and down, up and down, but she feels leagues away. She has taken him in too deep, and she’s coughing now, lying beside him on her back, gagging quietly. “Maybe you’re the one not attracted to me.”
“Of course I’m attracted to you.” He’s lying next to her, his organ at half-mast, flopping to the side like a fish.
“It doesn’t seem like it.”
“I could masturbate,” he says.
She gives him a look: this, too, is prohibited. “Just to get us going,” he says again.
She catches sight of herself in the mirror still wearing her baseball cap. She was already dressed, had her hair covered to start the day, and she neglected to remove the cap when she took her clothes off. And there she was, hammering at Amram’s crotch as she went down on him, and she laughs now, recalling this, thinking, What a turn-off, of course he couldn’t get hard.
“We could do it from behind,” he says.
That’s how dogs do it, she wants to say. But even the thought of it sounds absurd. When did she become so squeamish? She’s on her hands and knees, and Amram is behind her, pounding against her like a rump roast, and as she looks over her shoulder she can’t see him, only feels him ramming against her flesh. She closes her eyes, presses her face against the pillow, and when she looks back from between her legs she can see nothing but her breasts hanging pendulously from her. “Amram, are you hard?” But he doesn’t answer her, and she’s thinking, Enter me already, for God’s sake!
He’s inside her now, but then she’s not sure. She feels a smothering pressure; she’s being rammed in the rear as if with a cattle prod.
There’s a wetness against her buttocks, and before she can say, “What was that?” she realizes.
“You came.” Semen drips down her rear end, viscous as egg yolk.
“Fuck,” Amram says.
She reaches around with the pillow to wipe herself off. “Oh, God, Noelle.”
She covers her breasts with the bedspread, shielding them from his gaze. “You weren’t inside me.”
She burrows deeper beneath the covers. “You said you weren’t hard.”
“But you came,” she says. “I thought that wasn’t possible.”
“Me, too.” He’s mopping at his pelvis with a wadded-up tissue, and then he’s mopping her up as well.
Already the backs of her thighs are caking up. Regret sloshes through her, rising in her stomach.
“The sheets,” he says. “They’re soiled.” He grabs at the edge of the fitted sheet, and now it has come off and he’s lying on the mattress pad, trying to extricate himself, and she’s trying to extricate herself, too.
“I’ll put it in the wash,” she says. “I’ll do it.”
She goes to object, but she doesn’t have the strength to stop him.
“You were right. The kids. What was I thinking?”
He’s standing far away from her now, across the room. “We’ll try again later. It will be different tonight.”
“There won’t be a tonight.”
“It’s my fault,” she says.
“Your fault? I’m the one who came in two seconds.”
“I did,” he says, “and don’t try to sugarcoat it.”
The fitted sheet is still half on, half off. She does her best to right it, but it won’t stay on. There’s a stain on the middle of it, and another one on the peak of her baseball cap; she’ll have to wash that as well. “You should get dressed,” she says. “The kids will be up soon.”
“They’re already up. I can hear them.”
There’s a knock on the door, and she goes to answer it, but there’s no point. The boys have burst in, decked out in their prayer fringes and knitted yarmulkes, so she herds them downstairs, the four of them in a row attached like sausages, where the rest of the family is waiting for them.
Joshua Henkin is the author of the novels Swimming across the Hudson (a Los Angeles Times Notable Book) and Matrimony (a New York Times Notable Book). His new novel, The World Without You, from which this is an excerpt, comes out in June from Pantheon. His stories have been published widely, cited for distinction in Best American Short Stories, and broadcast on NPR’s Selected Shorts. He directs the MFA Program in Fiction Writing at Brooklyn College.