The Mikvah by Joyce Lee
Minucha Kagan’s world was one of absolutes. In a greater world where the very temperature change of the planet was subject to debate and dissension, where a celebrity’s smile and his attorney’s artfully crafted arguments could sway a jury even in the light of irrefutable evidence, where television and the Internet supplied new trends to be discarded like pistachio shells, where nothing was certain except that nothing was certain, the Kagan household followed the law of the Talmud much as it had been followed for thousands of years.
Outside, the world shifted as often as the truncated spellings of a text message. Within Minucha’s home, communication was less capricious, where the Word of God mingled with that of her father, a man of great love but of equally great conviction, who loomed at a level only slightly below Moses. With the fervor of another age he prayed for his sons to follow in his footsteps as an attorney, and for his daughters to someday be wives, mothers of children, bound to a man deemed proper in a life strictly prescribed by tradition. Among others in the Orthodox circle, mothers were teachers, doctors, realtors, but within the eruv of the Kagan home, the division between women and men was a mehitzah as clear as the physical divider in the synagogue.
But while the level of autocracy was perhaps extreme, the Kagan home was by no means an austere throwback. Education was encouraged, even for the girls—at least to the point where it didn’t interfere with their home duties. After all, Mr. Kagan explained, a woman should be able to intelligently converse with her husband, and Minucha often heard her parents discussing politics or other worldly concerns, her mother kneading the challah while her father sat at the kitchen table with a cup of coffee. Two large televisions and several computers brought the world into the Kagan home, with educational video games encouraged, as were music lessons on piano, violin, guitar, cello, and clarinet, the family orchestra growing with each additional child.
As the eldest of what would eventually be nine children, Minucha accepted this tenet as her lot, that everything was God’s will; she had no reason to question such a dictate. Still, sometimes Minucha wished she could, like the music, float through the windows and spread herself out on the wind.
When she heard her father, in his morning prayers, thanking God for not making him a woman, a small tickle fluttered in her mind, and Minucha began to wonder at the sarcasm of a God who could see her as inferior. She could run faster, throw a ball farther, and swing across the playground equipment quicker than the red-headed Weinberg brothers who lived next door. She loved whirling about on the various climbing bars, her dark hair flying free, her skirts flapping open to the clear Chicago air.
Then one day in the park when she was eight, her mother stopped her.“Minnie, no more climbing.”
“But why, Mama? It’s fun!”
“You’re getting older, kotchkala, and it’s not right for a girl to show her underpants. No roughhousing with the boys, and no more climbing.”
Minucha later complained to her brother, Nossi, who was eleven months younger than her. They were sitting in the room Nossi shared with their twin brothers Velvyl and Shyah, taking turns practicing the little Suzuki violin they shared.
“It’s not fair!” she pouted, pensively plucking at the strings. Then she had an idea.
“I could climb if I was wearing pants.”
“Girls aren’t supposed to wear boys’ clothes,” Nossi said.
Minucha considered. “Men only wear a tallis in shul,” she said. “Maybe it’s the same thing for pants on girls.”
Nossi considered, then pulled a pair of black pants from his dresser drawer. “Okay, you can wear mine.”
Minucha grabbed the pants and ran into her room to try them on. She was slender and Nossi was a tall boy—a langer loksh, their mother called him—and the pants fit her fine. She tucked her blouse into the waist and ran out to join her friends, enjoying the foreign feel of the fabric between her legs.
She was hanging by her knees from the top of the climbing bars when she saw her upside-down father striding across the grass toward her.
Before she could right herself, he helped her off the bars, setting her down on the pea gravel layered around the equipment.
“Minnie, you disobeyed your mother. Look at you, wearing men’s clothes!”
“Nossi’s not a man,” she pouted. Then, emboldened by the smile she saw crinkling her father’s mouth, she went on. “He’s a little boy. Littler than me.”
“Hey, Lazar, you’ve got a live one there!” laughed Mr. Weinberg, who was watching the children play. Her father stood up and sighed.
“She’s smart,” he said. “Maybe too smart. A real lawyer’s mind.” He turned to Minucha and patted her cheek. “Vilde chayala. Let’s go home so you can change.”
“Papa,” she said, trotting along to keep up with his long stride. “What if you bought me girl pants? Pink ones? My friends wear them. They’re not boys’ clothes.”
His eyes were wide but amused.
“And I thought I was the litigator in the family!” He shook his head. “Let others wear them. You’re my daughter and you’ll follow my rules.”
She was quiet a moment, thinking, then said, “Papa? What’s a ‘lawyer’s mind’?”
“Huh. You hear everything too, don’t you?” He thought a moment. “A lawyer’s mind can twist ideas around and find the hidden reasons behind things,” he explained. “It’s a way of thinking to make facts say what you want them to say.”
“A lawyer’s mind,” she repeated softly, liking the way it sounded. So be it—she would be a lawyer. At night, alone in her bed, her little sisters breathing the untroubled sleep of ungendered dreams, she would think up ways she might circumvent the rigid rules placed upon her lowly female self.
The family owned a cottage on Plum Lake in Wisconsin, and weekends were often spent running in the grass or sand, and splashing happily under their mother’s watchful eye. Evenings, they read or played their instruments, two pastimes that transcended gender as they gave concerts for each other or discussed Torah and various secular books,.
Minucha had always been free to swim with her brothers and sisters, splashing together in the cold, clear water, baking to a tan as they floated on large black inner tubes or the flat wooden raft. The summer she was eleven, her father stopped her from running into the water with Yossi.
“You’re a woman now, my Minnie,” he said, and she blushed, knowing that he was referring to the fact that she had recently begun menstruating. “You shouldn’t swim with men anymore. It’s not decent.”
She watched as Yossi and her other siblings laughed and splashed. “That’s not fair,” she pouted. “I want to swim, too.”
“You can swim with your mother and sisters, when the boys come in,” he said. “We’ll set up a schedule. Right now, just stay on the shore.”
Her disappointment blocked her sense of propriety, and she blurted out, “What about people on the other side of the lake? When we swim, there could be men swimming there that we don’t know about.”
Her father smiled. “Ah, that lawyer’s mind,” he said, considering her argument. “Good, good, but if that’s your argument, I would have to say then you can’t swim unless we’re sure no one is in the water. And how would we know that? You wouldn’t be able to swim at all. Now what do you say?”
She considered her recourse. “I’ll follow the schedule.” She turned away, hiding her disappointment. “Excuse me,” she said archly. “I’m going to read. Off by myself. Where no one can see.” She turned and walked off in what she hoped was a huff.
Each summer after that, she rankled at the unfairness of the rule. When her sister Chani “entered womanhood” too, she joined Minucha on the beach, waiting for the boys to decide to come out. Now and then the boys would torment their sisters by lingering in the water beyond their allotted time, daring the girls to come and make them get out.
Once when she was fourteen, after being denied a swim for most of the day by her brothers, Minucha decided that she would take her turn whenever she could—even at night. Her parents had admonished the children against swimming alone, and breaking that rule compounded the thrill of darkness as she tiptoed out of the cabin and crept to the water. The moon was full and the sky bright. Staying within the shallows bounded by the raft, she floated, enjoying the soft warmth of the water caressing her air-chilled skin.
Above her, pinpoints of stars appeared between lazy clouds with moon-silvered edges. Staring up, Minucha saw in the moon what was surely the face of God. He was smiling at her, and she smiled back at the apparent approval of her deception. There were ways to get around the rules, she thought. One only needed to use a lawyer’s mind.
After that, she chose her arguments carefully, waiting to speak until she was sure she had covered all her bases. At sixteen she suggested to her father that she needed a job. He’d been working in his den, and at her request he turned away from the computer.
“I could buy my own clothes,” she said, adding, “and I’ll give half my salary for tzeduka.” She knew he would not resist an appeal to charity.
“It’s a fine idea, but you would have to be off on Shabbos and holidays.”
She was ready for this. “All set. I’m in the children’s department at Bloomingdale’s, and I work Sundays and after school. No Fridays or Saturdays.”
Her father stared at her, then shrugged. “Okay, Emma Goldman. You win.”
The job was liberating, made all the more so by one of the girls she worked with. Julia was also Jewish, but her family was not Orthodox. She was sassy and funny, and Minucha envied her both her casual relationship with her parents and her freedom. One airy spring day, they sat eating their lunch on a bench in the mall courtyard. Next to the trendy, miniskirted Julia, she felt dowdy in her brown sweater set and long denim skirt.
As they ate, a young man wearing tight jeans and t-shirt crossed the mall and Julia openly admired his lazy gait. He saw her and flashed a toothy smile.
“Mmmm,” Julia said around her mouthful of tuna sandwich. “Look at that tush. I wouldn’t mind walking behind that!”
Minucha was shocked, but she laughed. “Is that all you think about?”
“Well, yeah. Don’t you? God, don’t you ever wonder about sex? I mean, your mom had nine children. Your folks must really burn up that bedroom.”
Minucha almost choked on her chopped liver sandwich, the idea of her parents being carried away by passion at once horrifying and amusing.
During Minucha’s senior year at the Jewish Day School, talk naturally turned to college. Minucha had secretly applied to several schools, and had been accepted at all of them. Now, acceptance packets in hand and arguments at the ready, she prepared to face her father. With a deep breath, she strode into his den and set the packets on his desk. He adjusted his glasses and looked at the pile.
“What’s all this?”
“Acceptance packets. I want to go to college.”
“Of course you do. You’re a smart girl.” He examined the packets.
“Wisconsin. Minnesota. Michigan.” His eyebrows shot up and he smiled. “Northwestern. University of Chicago. Very impressive.” She basked in the moment, knowing it would end with a but. She was right.
“But what for?” he said.
“Please.” Her voice was low, a prayer. “Please.”
He considered. “You really want this?” She nodded, afraid to speak. He set aside the packets from neighboring states. “These are too far,” he said.
“What about Chicago? Or Northwestern? I could still live at home.”
“Too expensive.” he said. “I have your five brothers to educate.” She noted he did not include her sisters. “What about the University of Illinois? The downtown campus has a fine Jewish studies program, and tuition is more reasonable. After all, you’ll quit when you get married anyway.”
Minucha banished the last words from her mind. She grabbed her small victory, and would deal with the rest later. “That will be fine. Thank you.” So what if it wasn’t her first choice—she was going to college! And Jewish Studies wasn’t an unusual major for a future law student.
She loved the campus and enjoyed her classes as a Jewish Studies major. Still, when she had time, she often traveled to the University of Chicago, to the law school campus. There she wandered through the building, or stood outside of the classrooms, breathing in what she hoped would be the air of her future.
One day in late May of Minucha’s freshman year, she finished her last exam and decided to extend the warm day. She hopped the “El” and soon was sitting on a bench by the law school’s large reflecting pool and fountains. Across the Midway Plaisance, on the wide grassy expanse, bag pipers were practicing for the upcoming graduation, and as she listened, she noticed a young man sitting on a bench nearby, his head bent over his books. He was dressed casually in a green sweater and jeans, but he wore a kipah. The yarmulke kept sliding off his curly copper hair as he read, and each time he automatically reached up and replaced it, as though it was such a part of him he didn’t even have to break concentration.
On an impulse, Minucha looked in her purse and found a flat hair clip. She always carried several because “kipah control” was often a problem for her father and brothers. Shyly, she approached the young man.
“Excuse me,” she said tentatively. He didn’t seem to notice her, as he was so deep in his book, which she saw was a study of torts. She spoke louder. “Excuse me.”
His head shot up and the kipah went flying. As he grabbed for it, his book began to drop, and he twisted adroitly, one hand snatching the book before it hit the ground and the other snapping out to grab the kipah with effortless grace.
“I’m sorry,” she said. “I just thought you might like this.” She opened her palm with the clip and the young man glanced at her. His eyes were clear, blue as Lake Michigan, and she felt a quickening below her stomach that made her legs quiver.
“Thank you,” the young man said, his voice soft, musical, matching the breeze that strummed the blossoming trees. He secured the small yarmulke, which had a baseball embroidered on it along with the words, “Go Sox.”
“I’m a Cubs fan myself,” she said.
“Ah, then we must never speak again,” he said, and his sudden smile stole her breath away. At that moment the university carillon began to ring; the young man’s head jolted around, but this time his yarmulke stayed firmly in place.“Thank you for the clip,” he said, and ran off, leaving Minucha alone with the chimes.
She looked for him again each time she returned but never saw him, leaving her to revive and relive the encounter in her mind. It was enough to stir, but not to sustain, and she was both happy and miserable in her restlessness. Sometimes she dreamed that blue eyes floated above her, dreamed of strong arms around her, and in her sleep she felt her heart beat faster, felt her back arch as her body was overtaken by a wave of sensation that broke, leaving her to wake spent, wondering at her own body’s longings. She knew enough to realize what she had experienced, and wondered if she should feel guilty about it while secretly longing each night for its return.
That fall she was at the den computer, filling out her online registration, when her father came in. He looked over her shoulder, and she steeled herself to continue as though he weren’t there, until he spoke.
“So how long is this nonsense going to go on?”
“I’ve set you up with several nice young men, but you’ve rejected them all.”
“I’m not looking for a husband.”
“You don’t have to. I’ll look. You just pick one.”
“I want to be a lawyer,” she said softly.
He looked troubled, and his words were sad. “A lawyer is not a good life for a religious woman. It’s too time-intensive, leaving no time for your family. How would you make a good Jewish home?”
“Other Jewish women are lawyers. You have some in your office.”
“They are not my daughter. Get married, make a home.” He silenced her protest with a look, and she knew it was one argument she would not win.
That November she was reading Rashi for one of her classes, curled up in the large leather chair in her father’s den, when he came in and stood looking over her shoulder.
“There’s a new young man in my office,” he said. “He’s coming to meet you Saturday night.” While Minucha pondered the statement, he went to the bookshelves, pulled out a thick volume and placed it on the table next to her chair. “Here, look at Rambaum’s commentaries,” he said. “You’ll like the additions he makes.”
As if I have a choice, she thought, and reluctantly picked up the book.
On his way out her father turned. “He’s smart, this young man. He went to Chicago law, top of his class.”
A sudden flutter in her stomach signified hope, and Minucha smiled into the Rambaum. The more she thought about it, the more she knew it had to be her red-haired student. Mama always said God makes shidduchs, she thought, and so God had planned it. This was her reward for always obeying, even if reluctantly.
He was here.
Minucha heard the bell, faintly heard the voices downstairs. Taking a deep breath, she tried to glide gracefully down the wide, dark-wood staircase. Her sisters Chani and Devorah were sitting on the landing bench giggling, and she gave them a cutting look. Their turn would come. Her father was at the foot of the stairs, talking to the young man who stood away from her view. Her heart beat faster.
“Ah, here she is now,” her father said. The young man in the hallway stepped into view, and Minucha’s smile froze.
The man looking up at her was a stranger—dark, with soft features and brown eyes. She stopped on the bottom step, and when he came up to her he was barely taller than her. She quickly stepped down and looked at her father. Surely this was wrong. It was not the shidduch she knew God had meant for her.
“Min, this is Jacob Kaplan.” She turned to the young man and smiled automatically, manners winning out over disappointment.
“Jacob. I’m glad to meet you.”
He was smiling, not speaking. She couldn’t tell if he was appraising her or just shy. Her father stood nearby, considering the considerer. Suddenly the suitor came to life.
“Oh. Here.” He handed her a small bouquet of daisies he had been holding.
“Thank you,” she said, thinking she would have preferred a good book. Her father went into his den.
“Well, shall we go?” Jacob took her coat from her arm and held it out for her.
“Alone?” She was surprised her father hadn’t demanded a chaperone.
“I will do nothing but respect you.” His look was mock-serious, and she found herself smiling, pleasantly surprised at his gentle teasing.
“That’s good,” she said. “I’d hate to have to hurt you.”
He eschewed her suggestion of a movie, instead suggesting dinner at a kosher restaurant. “I’d rather talk,” he said. He was obviously excited about the law, although as a first-year in her father’s large office he did little but write briefs and take depositions. She enjoyed his enthusiasm. Jacob spoke as though she were an equal, able to understand the intricacies of his torts and briefs. She, in turn, asked questions, and he patiently explained the answers.
He listened as she talked about music, a subject he claimed to know little about, and made her promise to go with him to a concert. More dates followed and the months passed in easy camaraderie. He kept his promise about respecting her, although he did risk a kiss on their third date—a chaste, friendly kiss rather than one of passion. She enjoyed the kiss and the many that followed, enjoyed the stirrings they evoked inside of her. Perhaps even more, she enjoyed the fact that her father probably would not like the idea of her kissing a man not her husband. At least not yet. The more time they spent together, the more she felt comfortable with the possibility.
Still, in her dreams she walked with a red-haired man, holding his hand, drawing close to him. And it was he of her dreams who caused her body to clench and then release, spent and calm. She held her guilt over this fact in check, enjoying the privacy and the rebellion of her secrecy.
When Jacob proposed on Chanukah, she accepted and they decided on a spring wedding, before Passover. Life with him would be comfortable and friendly, if not exactly passion-filled. But she could find that passion in her private thoughts, feeling guilty at her deception, yet unable to refuse it.
After the ceremony, the newlyweds were swept away into a divided crowd, where they danced—she with the women, he with the men, then were seated in chairs and both hoisted high. A large white handkerchief was tossed up into the air to Jacob, who then flicked an end to her, and they “danced” without touching, laughing and bobbing like two leaves on a rippling lake.
Later, as she prepared for bed in the hotel suite, Minucha discovered that her often unreliable period had begun. Probably from the excitement, she reasoned. Well, so much for the wedding night. She came out of the bathroom to face her new husband who waited, his face shining with drink and excitement. Embarrassed, she wordlessly held up the box of sanitary napkins. His face fell. By Jewish law, sex was not permitted during menstruation.
Jacob sighed and shrugged. “Well, we’re not the first for this to happen. We’re both tired anyway, so tonight we’ll sleep.”
Then he slipped into bed and placed a couple of pillows next to him, indicating that she should sleep on the other side. “To avoid temptation,” he said. “It’s okay, Minnie. I can wait.”
His words were both a reprieve and a disappointment. She wanted him to want her so much he couldn’t wait. She wanted to want him that way, too, part of her wishing he would refuse to wait, would tear off her nightgown and make her feel for real the excitement of her dreams. But he just sighed and turned over, and she slipped into her side of the bed, feeling sorry for him, but also, deep down, a bit relieved, and confused by her feelings. She drifted off to the dream of red hair and blue eyes yet again and woke to the now-familiar shock of climax. Afterwards, she lay awake a long time, considering that on the other side of the pillow divide lay her husband, unaware of his bride’s solitary wedding night consummation.
They moved into their new apartment the next day, postponing their honeymoon until after the upcoming Passover holiday.
“I’ll have to get my hair cut off before Passover,” she said that evening after dinner in their new kitchen. She was putting plates in the sink to wash, and Jacob came up behind her and curled his arms around her waist. He reached up and curled a dark strand of her hair around his finger.
“You don’t have to cut it for me,” Jacob said. “You don’t have to keep it covered, either. At least not here at home.” He buried his nose in her hair and pressed against her. “It’s so beautiful, almost alive.” His comments had surprised her as much as his touch. Until she attended the mikvah, she was a niddah and considered untouchable. But Jacob wasn’t as strict about things as she would have guessed someone would be who was selected by her father, and she found his little breaches thrilling.
After her period ended, she counted the requisite seven days, then visited the small brick building that housed the mikvah. In the preparation room, Minucha showered and washed her hair, enjoying the feel of her thick wet hair against her neck and shoulders. It made mikvah a little more difficult, as she had to search for and remove loose hairs before going in, and then had to be sure to dunk deep enough so no hair floated above. Still, she felt her small rebellion was definitely a triumph.
After showering, she sat at the mirrored dressing table and trimmed her toenails, then filed her fingernails. Even short nails had to be filed slightly before going into the mikvah, so that nothing should block the water from touching and purifying every little bit of skin. When she was completely clean, she wrapped herself in the thick robe left on the door and entered the immersion area.
Abbie Dubman, the women’s overseer, greeted Minucha warmly and held the robe and towel as Minucha stepped down into the pool to where the water just skimmed the tops of her breasts. Minucha had visited the mikvah for the first time just before the wedding, so she knew what to do. Lifting her toes from the tiled pool floor, she dropped into a relaxed fetal position, opening her body, slightly parting her eyelids, her lips, spreading her fingers and toes to let the water cleanse every inch of skin. She floated a moment, hearing nothing but her heartbeat in her ears, feeling the swirl of her hair above her, the warm caress of the water. Then, when she could hold her breath no longer, she braced her feet against the floor and launched herself upward, breaking through to meet the air, exhilarated. She was a seal, a dolphin, a mermaid, breaching the water to command two worlds.
Abbie handed Minucha the towel to cover her head while she recited the requisite prayers blessing God who purified through immersion. She dunked again, relishing the weightlessness and watery embrace, then reluctantly stepped up the stairs leading out of the water and took the robe. Somewhat embarrassed by the older woman’s knowing look, she went to prepare for her husband.
At home, Minucha paced nervously, knowing what Jacob would be expecting when he got home from work. Her stomach had been fluttering all day, and when she had the urge to use the toilet, she was surprised to see the blood in the bowl.
At the news, Jacob was nonplussed. “What? But you just had your period!”
“I know,” Minucha blushed to be discussing such a personal matter with a man so barely her husband. “I-I’ve always been irregular . . . I’m sorry, Jacob, really, I am.” She turned away from the disappointment in his eyes, surprised that she actually did feel a curl of disappointment along with slight cramps.
“Well, we have the rest of our lives together, I guess another couple of weeks won’t kill us.” He smiled wanly. “It’ll only feel like death,” he joked, and she felt truly sorry for him. He kissed her lightly, his lips lingering, and she again felt a thrill from his casual disregard of the purity laws.
Once more she counted the days, and this time found herself eager to go to the mikvah. She took her time in the preparation room, enjoying the soft music, the sweet-smelling soaps, the feeling of being pampered. Again when she immersed, floating in the warm water, she felt an indescribable joy.
She came home again feeling apprehension, and also that familiar heaviness below her stomach. As Jacob entered the front door, she felt the blood begin once more and rushed to the bathroom. This time, however, Jacob turned pale when she told him. He was shocked, even a little suspicious.
“Min, it’s normal to be nervous, but you don’t have to be shy.”
“Do you want proof?” she asked, surprised at her own boldness. His face colored and he apologized. Seeing his pained look, she cringed inside. “I know it’s been difficult for you, Jacob—” she began, but he cut her off.
“You don’t know!” His outburst startled her, and she turned away. His voice softened and he turned her and drew her to him. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry, Min. I’m just worried that something might be wrong.” He peered into her face, concerned. “Go see the doctor. Tomorrow. Please.” She nodded. “Come on, you probably don’t feel like cooking. Let’s go out to dinner.”
Her small sense of triumph at his acquiescence shamed her. He was her husband, after all, yet she couldn’t shake the feeling that she had won something precious, that perhaps God was on her side after all, and she reveled in the belief that He was allowing her the delight of the mikvah without the ensuing obligation.
Her doctor said she was fine, that such happenings weren’t unusual for young brides, and suggested some relaxation techniques. Time passed, and Minucha again counted the days to mikvah. She and Jacob had fallen into an easy, comfortable pattern, and chances were good that this time there would be no reprieve. Still, she felt somewhat cheated, wanting the passion she found in her dreams to be in her husband who was so patient. Now, although she yearned for the freedom of the water, she disdained the certainty of the afterwards. Suddenly, a thought struck her like a lightning bolt through her brain.
Jacob did not have to know she was going to mikvah.
The thought settled into her mind, the power of her realization struck her. It was her decision, and hers alone, and no one would know but her. She also knew she was breaking the rules, those set down by God and her father, but she didn’t care. How had God repaid her fealty in the past? Denied her both the possibility of law school and the blue-eyed man, laying both before her as temptations, then snatching both away.
The next morning, she told Jacob that she was unable to go to mikvah that day, that her unreliable period had come early. He sighed, but all he said was, “Well, as long as the doctor says you’re all right. It’ll be a story for our children. If we ever have any.” He was joking, but his face betrayed his frustration. She felt a stab of guilt, yet the secret power within her remained, and she said no more.
She spent extra time in the preparation room, shaving, plucking, singing in the shower. Then, reciting the prayer, she let herself be welcomed by the warm water. As she bent her knees and dipped below the surface, she blew a little air out of her mouth and felt the water eddy, felt little bubbles of breath—her breath, her life—float to the top of the pool. As she surfaced, she felt a strength, a power she had never known, and she dunked once, twice more, reluctant to leave the womblike warmth. Afterwards, she lingered in the preparation room, drying and brushing her hair until it gleamed, rubbing sweet lotion on her body, working it slowly into her legs, her arms, her chest, her face. There was a sensual pleasure to the motion, and she felt a pleasant stirring in her stomach, but it was not foretelling a period. That night they slept with the pillows once more between them, but her sleep was dreamless.
The next day was Friday, and Minucha labored all day, cleaning the small apartment until every surface shone, and by late afternoon the fragrant bouquet of roast chicken, sweet plum-and-apricot compote, pungent cholent and fresh-baked challah all mixed together creating a promise of plenty. She was peeling potatoes and humming when she heard Jacob enter the front door.
“You’re home early!” Minucha called cheerfully, wiping her hands on her apron. She wore a white kerchief holding back her thick hair. Her eyes sparkled and her cheeks were rosy from cooking, but Jacob didn’t smile or hug her.
He dragged heavily into the kitchen, and dropped a small pastry box on the table. His voice was strained. “I stopped at the bakery on the way home and ran into Aaron Dubman. He gave me your ring.” He dug into his pocket and tossed her ring on the counter. “Abbie had asked him to give to me if he saw me.” He looked at her, his eyes dull. “You left it yesterday at the mikvah.”
She froze a moment, and the silence hung on the air like a foul odor. The feel of the ring was still so new, she hadn’t noticed its absence. She saw his face and turned away, biting her lip.
“Why did you say you were—? Why didn’t you tell me?”
Her hands fluttered helplessly. She couldn’t look at him. The truth came out before she could stop it—before she even knew what she was saying.
“I wasn’t going for you.”
She had expected rage, shouting, maybe even a slap, but she was not prepared for what happened next. He fell heavily into a chair and began to cry, loud, gasping sobs. Taken aback by this outburst, Minucha sat down across the table, her helpless hands flopping like fish, wanting to soothe him yet not daring to touch him. She should say something, she thought, but no words would form.
Finally, he raised his head and stared at her. His face was blotchy, his eyes red. “Who is he?”
Of course, she realized, he would think she was cheating on him.
“There is no ‘he,’” she said. He looked at her, uncomprehending.
“No one else?” The thought settled behind his eyes and his mouth twisted into a wry grin. “No one else, but not me. Why? Do I so repulse you?”
His tear-streaked face tore into her heart and she felt the surprising tug of shame, of pity, no, of something more.
She struggled to explain. “Well, maybe there is someone else,” she said. “Me. I did it for me.”
Ask me why, she thought. Ask me what I am thinking, what I want, what I need.
“No one else,” he said, the thought settling behind his eyes. He sat up straighter. “I understand, Min, I do. You’re frightened.” He stood up. “But you’re my wife. Come. It’s time.” He walked to the stairs without looking back. She stood for a moment, hesitating. Then, surrounded by the smells of home and Shabbos, she slowly followed him up the stairs.
He was surprisingly gentle, his kiss light at first, as though testing her, and she found she enjoyed the feelings that stirred within her. She was at first taken aback by the unfamiliar tap of his tongue against her lips, but even more surprised by her unconscious opening to it. Her body yielded as well, her skin melting to the air until she floated, a mere wraith.
It was in that same dreamlike state that she was vaguely aware of him laying her down onto the bed, his hands carefully removing her clothing, his soft gasp before he lay on top of her. His heaviness was a pleasant weight that warmed her skin the length of her body. Then there was his careful prodding between her legs and the first quick, sharp pain. She involuntarily gasped, and he hesitated as though waiting for her to say something. When she remained silent, he continued moving, covering her face, her throat, her body with kisses, and she enjoyed the taste of his lips, the scent of his breath. As she gave herself up to a mounting excitement, she had the fuzzy awareness that the feelings of this reality were different from those that had churned her dreams. From some distant plateau she heard him call her name, and as she clutched him with increasing need, she thought, felt, knew that her dream would never be the same.
Jacob was still sleeping when she slipped out of bed. She had tried to sleep, but there were no dreams, and she awoke with a slight ache between her legs from muscles newly used. Her mother had told her there would be some blood the first time, but there had been no blood. Still she felt a desperate need for purification, but how? It was night now, and she padded downstairs. The supper lay drying in the uncovered pots, and she hadn’t lit the Shabbos candles. There was a punishment for that, she thought, but she couldn’t remember it. She lit the candles anyway, but the brocha wouldn’t come. She needed purification first.
But it was Shabbos; the mikvah was closed.
All she needed was a free-flowing body of natural waters. Like a lake. Like Lake Michigan, a scant mile away. She dressed quickly and silently slipped out the door, walking east beneath the streetlights, oblivious to the foolishness of her quest.
The beach was glowing beneath the almost-full moon, nearly bright as day, and the water moved in small silver-tipped waves that lightly spanked the sand. She stood at the water’s edge, drawn to the faint light along the horizon, wondering if it was dawn or just the lights of far-away Michigan glowing on the other side. Kicking off her shoes, she stepped in, expecting the shock of cold, but the water was satiny and warm. She wriggled her toes in the spongy mud, then pulled them out of the sucking ooze, letting the grains wash away. She stepped in deeper. The hem of her skirt, heavy with wetness, pulled the material downward, tugging at her hips like a lover eager to undress the object of his desire.
Yes, she thought, yes. She unbuttoned her skirt and let it fall, stepping out of the floating fabric, then walked in further, stripping off her underskirt and white cotton panties, stopping only to pull her legs through and then letting the clothing drift away. The water reached her waist and she unbuttoned her blouse and pulled off her camisole, until at last she was completely naked, the water slapping gently above her bobbing breasts. Untying the kerchief that imprisoned her hair, she set it on the water and shook her hair free. Then, releasing her feet, she pulled herself into a partial fetal position and dunked below the surface. The movement of the water played with her, pushing her back and forth, and she momentarily could not tell if she was up or down. She kicked around with her feet until she felt solid ground, then pushed upward, breaching high, laughing and tossing back her hair in a trailing arc of water beads. She looked for the kerchief and spied the white spot a little ways over. She swam to it, reveling in the free movement of her legs, the water swirling around her inner thighs, her breasts, her arms, her ears. The backward pull of the water against her hair thrilled her and she dunked her head again, playing, making somersaults as she strained to feel the water encircling every strand, filling every opening..
Finally, she stood and after wringing out the kerchief, she placed it upon her head and spoke the prayer to God who has commanded that women perform the mitzvah of mikveh. Then she set the kerchief flat upon the water and watched it as it gently rolled out farther and farther, a little white boat seeking its shore.
Minucha felt the waves growing, the current pulling and pushing her body becoming more insistent, more demanding, as though the sea was tired of merely playing and wanted more of her. A large wave smacked her in the face, making her sputter. Shaking the water out of her eyes, she saw another, larger wave heading for her. For a brief moment she panicked, then, thinking quickly, released her foothold and dipped below, rolling beneath the wave, jounced about by the increasingly insistent currents. She broke into the air, gasping and laughing, and saw she was beyond the wave, had escaped its pull. She could no longer find the lake floor and floated free, rising and falling with the swells.
Above her, pinpoints of stars could be seen between the scudding pearl-edged clouds. She floated as behind her the din of waves smashed their impotent anger against the shore. She had outwitted them, she thought, as she floated, serene. There was no fear, only peace, and Minucha stretched her opened body on the water, secure that she would be able to ride the waves back to shore whenever she so chose.
Midwestern writer Joyce Becker Lee has always followed her love of words. Long before earning her MFA in Creative writing from Northwestern University, she manipulated the language as a newspaper reporter and features editor, publicist and radio copywriter. A former English and theater teacher, she helped develop a K-12 series of writing textbooks and writing handbooks. Her short stories and features have appeared in such publications as Cicada, Prairies North, Lake Country Journal, Living on the Lake, Chicago Business Elite and Village Profile and online in New City Chicago and The Poetry Superhighway. Her poetry has also been featured in the Wisconsin Poets’ Calendar, and in the anthology Vampyr Verse. While at Northwestern, her work was nominated for The Best New American Voices 2010. Her Web site and blog can be found at www.jblee.com.