Men in Black
I glance at the bedside clock as I hear the front door open and then close. It is past midnight.
“Hubby’s home,” I type swiftly, my fingers flying over the soft keys of my Blackberry. I turn off my phone and let it fall to the side of my pillow just as he walks in. He suspects nothing.
We make small talk: he just came from a vach nacht and tells me who was there; I complain that the dentist wouldn’t give me an appointment for Chany until next week; I remind him of the dry cleaning to pick up the next day.
Soon he too is in bed, and I take my phone again. I don’t open my chat app, though. I can’t risk it. Instead, I sort through my emails, organize my apps or browse the web. But soon I can no longer resist. Just a quick check to see if there’s a new message, I think to myself. In his bed across the room, his own phone in hand, my husband watches a Lipa Schmeltzer clip, then Yoely Lebowitz and some other singer/comedian I don’t know. My husband chuckles a couple times, lets out a sigh of admiration for one performer or another, and finally reaches for his earphones. Soon I hear the grating guttural sounds of a Yiddish lecture. A short while later I notice one of the buds falls from his ear. His eyes are closed, his breathing has slowed, and I know he is asleep.
“You there?” I type.
He’s there. He’s been waiting, and we ease back into our conversation. We talk of spouses and relationships, the inadequate education systems for our children, the crazy rules that govern our lifestyle and how we flout them. (Me: stopped wearing seams. Him: gets coffee at Starbucks.) Hours pass and I barely notice them. Soon I can hear birds chirping. It is still dark out but daytime is approaching. I glance at my husband, fast asleep in his own bed for hours now. Some nights I notice his eyes flutter open occasionally, momentarily roused by the harsh backlight of my phone, but I am relieved that tonight he has slept through it all.
My mind drifts back to a time over a decade ago. It is a dreary evening; school is over, forever, and now decisions need to be made. There is a tentative job looming, but I can’t decide whether I want a job now at all. Perhaps I should return to seminary and escape life’s responsibilities for just one more year. Just then I hear a sound from outside my door, heavy footfalls, burdened, weary. My mood plunges another notch. I know what this means: we’re going to have that conversation again.
My father rarely comes to my room, and I brace myself now for what is sure to follow. I know that I am not ready. I am not even eighteen yet and I don’t feel capable of making life-altering decisions. I dread locking myself into a future with someone I’ll meet only once or twice. I dread a life of giving birth annually. In my mind, I see a houseful of little mouths to feed and diapers to change and laundry to clean and I cannot bear the thought. In recent years I’ve begun to learn about the world, through cautious and tentative visits to the library or the bookstore. I now have dreams, forbidden ones that can only cause problems, but I cannot banish them. I imagine myself in foreign countries, places I know nothing of but wish to learn about. I want to be awed by the world’s wonders, be inspired by strangers, to hear stories about worlds apart from my own but no less human. I don’t know where these dreams were born, but I have them. I also know they are unlikely to come true: Marriage, pregnancy, giving birth to one child after another, the myriad duties of housekeeping and family-building will surely shatter them.
I pull myself together as I hear my father approaching, calling for me: “Sury?”
I open the door and respond hesitantly: “Yes?” I’ve always been anxious around him, but especially now, when we are to talk about my future, a future for which we do not share the same dreams, barely even the same language.
My father stands in the doorway and gets straight to the point. There have been several more proposals, he says, and he wants to update me. A learning boy would have been ideal—at least in theory—but none of those proposed are learning boys. This says something about my status, my “name,” and, in spite of myself, I feel slightly disturbed. But I quickly tell myself that I don’t really care. What does it matter when I don’t feel ready for any boy at all?
As far as I am concerned, all boys are the same: White shirts, black pants, black shoes, black coats, the same sidecurls framing their faces. The only differences I notice are in the facial hair: some have clean and boyish chins—the way I think I like it—while others show uneven patches sprouting haphazardly along chiseled or fleshy jawbones. But these differences only exist when I observe closely, which is rarely, and they hardly matter. There’s little about boys and men that I can relate to; nothing about them fits into how I see my own life unfolding. In fact, there’s something entirely foreign about the opposite sex. It is, I am convinced, an entirely different world they inhabit, and I do not see our worlds meeting at any point. I know only their ridicule, their disparaging and dismissive remarks when, on a rare occasion, I might offer an opinion, tell a tale, share a desire. Surely, then, they do not experience the world as I do. Do they even have feelings at all, these boys, these men? Do they experience fear? Joy? Sorrow and shame? Even if they do, I tell myself, it must be of a different sort. And so I wonder, could I ever like a man, find his company pleasant, converse with him in the easy way with which I banter with friends? It doesn’t seem possible at all and I cannot even imagine wanting it. Very likely—ever.
But I can’t articulate these thoughts to my father. I know he won’t understand. All I can muster is the courage to ask for one thing:
“I want more than one meeting,” I tell him. He looks at me as if startled by my assertion. I know he thinks it unnecessary, but still I insist. I will not marry a boy whom I’ve met only once. “Two meetings minimum,” I say.
Does my father agree? I no longer recall, only that events proceed with my mind foggy and disoriented. A few day later, I am summoned home early from my temp job as a salesgirl in a clothing boutique. I am told that the other side is ready to meet—today. Right now, in fact. There’s no time to protest, nor do I suspect it would be of any use. I call a cab and head home, pick out an outfit, and set out with my parents for the selected meeting place—the dining room of an elderly aunt.
In the small room, the boy and I talk for about an hour. He is four years older than me, I was told, but his beard conceals so much of his face that he looks far older. Our conversation feels scripted, questions and answers all prepared beforehand, most of them about matters already known to us or of little consequence. I feel uncomfortable looking directly into his icy blue-gray eyes; when I do, I am unable to focus on what he is saying. My ears perk up, though, when he praises his mother: she is geshikt, he says, as capable with planning a tea party as with baking a kugel; as eager to keep the books of her husband’s business as she is with staying up all night with an ill child. This gives me hope. If he speaks appreciatively of his mother, perhaps he will do so of me one day.
We are only meant to meet for an hour, but it feels far longer. I sense his legs shaking restlessly beneath the table, and I pinch my palms anxiously. At last the hour is up and within seconds I am surrounded by an army of girls and boys, men and women of all sizes and ages—my prospective groom’s many siblings. Where did they all come from so suddenly? My father is in the adjacent room, waiting for my consent. Am I supposed to decide right now, with all of them hovering over me, only moments after concluding what has surely been the strangest encounter of my life?
I feel bewildered, mildly lightheaded, a touch angry even, which I quickly suppress by imposing upon myself a kind of numbness. What would be the point of insisting on another meeting? I don’t think I would know the difference if I met more boys. This match will proceed regardless, it is clear. Why suffer another awkward hour on another odd day, only to delay the inevitable? I see scores of eyes gazing at me expectantly. The plate is ready to be broken, the cries of mazel tov already perched, waiting, on two dozen lips. I nod to my father, and a diamond-studded watch appears and is wrapped around my wrist.
It appears that I am engaged.
I look back at the device in my hand. I struggle to remain focused, to keep my eyes open. It is not the first time we’ve chatted for hours, and our conversations have begun to touch on more personal matters, thoughts and feelings reserved for those we trust deeply. I find myself emboldened to ask a question that has been burning in me for some time:
“Have you ever cheated?”
“I’ve shaken hands,” he says. “I’ve hugged occasionally. But nothing more, not really.” Then, with what I take to be sheepish hesitation, he adds, “A couple strips clubs. That was long time ago, though.”
He asks the question in return.
“No,” I say, “never.” I consider whether to reveal my next thought, and then I do, raising the stakes. “But emotionally I’m being unfaithful right now.” Immediately I wonder if I should’ve said it, if I am not giving him the wrong ideas. “LOL,” I add. “If that’s what you’re asking.”
I catch a glimpse of my sleeping husband, his head accidentally bare, yarmulke stuck between pillow and headboard. A pit forms in my stomach.
I type: “And I’m feeling really guilty.”
There’s a pause in the steady stream of lines scrolling up on the screen as we both digest the import of all this. My eyelids shut intermittently, and in my sleep-deprived state I suddenly have a thought, a surprising desire. I long for this strange man’s arm around me, for his touch, for his body pressed closely against mine. “I wish you were here,” I type, barely awake.
An hour or two later I discover that I had fallen asleep, the phone still clenched tightly in my palm. The demands of an ordinary morning are quickly upon me. Between the toasted bread waiting to be buttered and knotted strands of hair waiting to be combed, my hands reach for my phone again.
Contrary to my anticipation, my daily routine does nothing to release the crushing grip that this device, this phone and all it has brought me, has over me. My children complain exasperatedly about my new addiction. “Again you’re typing on your phone,” my 8-year-old says the moment she walks in from school. I don’t understand it. I’ve never even met this man, and still I am smitten. It is a feeling that, even after a decade of marriage, I have never felt.
My husband is home early that evening, uncharacteristically. The children are asleep and the mood is relaxed. I feel frisky and unafraid to show it. My husband responds eagerly. But only with words, not touch. I have only yesterday begun to count seven days. My thoughts wander, and think of how nice it would be if our relationship was always this playful and relaxed. My husband leaves the room for a moment, and I steal a few seconds. My fingers dance across the tiny keys:
“Standing next to my H. We’re flirting, it’s kinda fun. Unusual, especially during niddah.”
“He doesn’t mind?” he asks.
“He doesn’t mind,” I write. “But it’s you my insides are filled with… I know it’s a fantasy. But still.”
Later, as I settle into bed for another night with my phone, I confess: “I don’t know what this is leading to.”
He offers an attempt to alleviate my concerns: “My appearance will cool things off. I guarantee it.”
What does he mean by that? I wonder. Could he really be so grotesque-looking?
“Maybe we shouldn’t meet???” he writes. He phrases it as a question, tempting me to reject him, making it my decision.
We move on to something else, but still I wonder about how he might look. Still I can’t shake that feeling throughout the next day… or the next… I go about my day almost as if in a trance, obsessed with the thought of this man I never met but whose thoughts and feelings appear to be so like mine, whose sentences we now finish even though we both exist for the other only inside the devices in our palms. The thought of him is a constant hum in the background of my mind; his faceless image follows me everywhere.
I think about what he’s said over and over again, about his appearance disappointing me, repulsing me; that any meeting between us will soothe the storm within. The rational part of me hopes for it to be true, hopes for averting tragedy—or a mess, at the very least. But the rest of me aches for this feeling to remain. I cannot let him—this—go. I go about my day in a stupor, yearning to feel his arms around me, his breath upon my skin.
On Shabbos morning, I stroll down the street, my four-year-old pushing her doll stroller beside me. I realize after a moment that I’ve been observing each black-clad figure that passes, tallis under the arm, strutting off to shul. These fashions never held any appeal for me, but now I notice them. Shtreimels with and without crowns. Shoes polished or scuffed. Subtle bekishe patterns, large geometric shapes and fine baroque ones—I wonder, do they reflect personalities?
A few doors down, I see a figure skipping hurriedly down a flight of concrete stairs. He is of a medium build, his dark payess perfectly curled, neatly framing his face and dissolving into his short black beard. I wonder: is this the image of the man that has been occupying my mind? I continue down the street and try not to get too distracted. My daughter needs me, and I should be present with her. But then I spot another figure turning the corner, a bit more disheveled than the previous one.
I notice signs of a paunch above his gartel, breaking the straight line of black. His light-colored side curls are not as perfectly formed. Perhaps this fits the description better. I imagine what it would be like to approach him. Would those feelings remain—that smothering, incessant, insatiable desire—or would the magic dissolve? I observe this man from a distance of several yards, this person who is not the person I chat with but now stands in for him, and the possibility opens as I think of it. He is not particularly handsome, this man, but something inside me is changing. I may begin to handle this look, which until now I’ve found foreign and mildly repellent. In fact, something inside me now stirs at the sight of it. I may begin to like it, suddenly intrigued by this facade of piety concealing the humanness beneath.
Now, as the days continue to drift by, my mind still in a daze, I notice them everywhere. Suddenly they appear vibrant, monochromes as colorful as a rainbow. I observe and I wonder; I want to know what else hides beneath those uniforms. What passions, fears and emotions do those side-curls and bushy beards conceal? What stories do they tell—those nearly indistinguishable slabs of black and white?Printable Version