The air whipped up around Aliza, chasing the bus that had just pulled away from the stop. She wrapped her shawl more firmly around her shoulders, and sidled over to the pole holding up the bus stop sign. She leaned her forehead against it. The metal was cool against her skin. She let out a long breath and finally let the tears flow.
She had really thought this was it. After what felt like an endless assembly line of purportedly eligible men, each one of them more immature or unstable than the last, David had walked into that café and smiled his wide smile and suddenly she was blushing and stuttering and forgetting things like her own sister’s name. Her best friend Sarah demanded a full report over the chicken soup the following Friday night. As Aliza spoke, Sarah exchanged glances with Benjamin, and when she fell silent, Sarah beamed at her. They each knew what the other was thinking. This is different. This is the one.
Aliza hastily wiped the tears off her face and glanced around, suddenly ashamed to be crying in public. She took a deep breath, squared her shoulders and started walking towards her apartment building.
Maybe she had been too hasty? Maybe if she had given him some more time… but no, it had already been two months. Something had to happen. In the religious community these things were very straightforward. Dating was for marriage, not for fooling around. And she was in love. Anyone could tell. She had reached a point where the risk of not knowing whether it was mutual seemed worse than the risk of telling him how she felt. So earlier that evening, as they sat in a gazebo in the park, sipping the last of their hot chocolate, she had told him.
And he had bit that gorgeous bottom lip and said, after a few moments, “You are a very precious friend.”
That line played itself over and over in her head as she walked. A very precious friend.
A movement from behind a thick bamboo fence to her right startled her, stopping her in her tracks. Brisk footsteps thudded toward the sidewalk, and as the woman emerged, Aliza recognized Sarah. She almost cried out in greeting, but Sarah remained completely oblivious to her, cutting ahead of Aliza on the sidewalk and continuing ahead of her in quick strides. At first Aliza felt insulted and hurt. She had texted Sarah from the bus about what happened, and hadn’t gotten a response; now Sarah was ignoring her in person?! But then she noticed the water stain on the scarf wrapped around Sarah’s hair. And she glanced down the narrow corridor that had concealed Sarah before Aliza had noticed her. And then she understood.
It was the entrance to the mikveh.
The mikveh. The ritual bath. That mysterious place where married religious Jewish women went once a month. The place where, having determined themselves “clean” from their menstrual bleeding, they shed the taint of death, the loss of a potential life, from their bodies. Thus purified, they could return home and once again engage in physical intimacy with their husbands.
One night when Aliza was babysitting Sarah’s baby daughter, she had raided their bottom bookshelf, the one with the books about relationships and marriage. One of them had been about the mikveh. She read it cover to cover. About how immersing in the mikveh was like a spiritual rebirth. About the cycle of drawing apart and coming back together that characterized the Jewish marriage. About the sense of longing it created, that made the reunion that much sweeter on mikveh night. Aliza had never really talked with Sarah about it directly, but she’d overheard Sarah talking about it with their other friends, most of whom were also married, in whispers and giggles.
Aliza stood at the end of the corridor for a long time, staring at the slanted sliver of yellow light cast on the ground from the open door to the building.
And then she took a step towards it.
And another step.
The mikveh attendant was sitting on a cushioned chair inside, hunched over a book of Psalms, as Aliza walked in. She looked up and gave Aliza a smile and a nod towards the other end of the room, where a door with an opaque white glass panel stood ajar. Aliza stared around the entrance room, disoriented.
“Are you new here?” the attendant said, closing the book and heaving herself out of the chair. She had used the plural “you,” implying that Aliza was a “them,” not just a “she.” The attendant was a short, squat, middle-aged lady in a floral button-down shirt, a black skirt with a hem halfway between her knees and her ankles, and a black snood that completely concealed her hair. She removed her librarian spectacles from their perch on the end of her nose, letting them dangle from the false pearl chain around her neck.
“I… uh… yes,” Aliza stuttered.
“Welcome, welcome. The preparation rooms are just this way. Do you need anything? A towel?”
A towel seemed like a reasonable thing to need.
“Let me check, I think there is still one left in this room…” the attendant mumbled, pulling the door open to reveal a labyrinth of corridors and doors with opaque glass panels. The sounds of running and sloshing water echoed through the hall. She led Aliza to one of the rooms and cast a glance around it.
“Yes, there’s a towel in this one. Let me know if you need anything else. My name is Bilha,” she added with a grin. “Just press that button to buzz me when you’re ready.” She pointed to a red button near the light switch, and then left, shutting the door firmly behind her.
Aliza examined the interior of the room, clutching her purse in something of a daze. It reminded her a lot of the bathroom in Sarah’s apartment: cramped, plain, lined with gleaming white tile and smelling of artificial roses. There was a bathtub with a showerhead, a toilet, and a small counter with a sink. A full-length mirror hung next to the door. She was very relieved to find, right next to it, a laminated piece of paper titled “How to Prepare for Immersion.”
She hung her purse on the hook on the door and unwrapped her shawl, squinting at the document. It read like the caretaker’s checklists she had seen next to her grandmother’s bed in the old age home. “In order for the immersion to be valid, the water of the mikveh must touch every part of the exterior of your body,” she read. “It is therefore required to remove all barriers that may prevent the water from touching you, including dirt, stray hairs, contact lenses, etc.”
Right… barriers. Aliza remembered reading something about barriers.
Remove all the barriers, she thought. Emerge from the waters reborn.
She glanced around the room again, shrugged, and turned on the faucet in the bathtub.
Strange as it was to be in this place that was supposed to be the territory of married women only, it was even stranger to strip naked and take a bath somewhere that wasn’t her parents’ home. She had no bathtub in her apartment. It had been years since she had bathed. The warm water felt so good against her skin, and she settled back, closing her eyes in pleasure. There was definitely something to be said for baths. Maybe she should take baths at Sarah’s house sometimes. Or would that be too weird, with Benjamin around and all?
Not much weirder than a religious single woman taking a bath in the mikveh, probably.
She just lay there for a while, and then proceeded to follow the instructions on the page. She trimmed her nails and combed her hair. She stared at her reflection in the full-length mirror, feeling strangely embarrassed. She was not used to looking at her own bare body with such attention. She examined herself for stray hairs, turning this way and that to check her back.
Would there ever be a man who would admire this?
She wrapped herself in the towel and sat down on the closed toilet, holding her head in her hands as a wave of nausea rose up in her chest.
You are a very precious friend.
What did that even mean? Why did he date her for two months if he only thought of her as a friend?
Remove all the barriers.
She looked up at the red button by the door.
The mikveh was like a womb, or a grave, she had read. A doorway to a different state of being. The waters were gathered in such a way to render them untouched by direct human intervention; rainwater that was collected through pipes that were open at both ends, so as to not be considered “vessels.” This pure water constituted a direct connection to the Rivers of the Garden of Eden… back to a time and a space where death did not exist, and good and evil were completely separate from one another, and Adam and Eve did not see their own nakedness.
Back to the beginning of all things. Back to before Eve’s misplaced trust led her to her fatal mistake.
Aliza stood up and pressed the buzzer.
Bilha led Aliza through the maze of white tile to the small room with the immersion pool. Aliza found herself a little disappointed with it. It was a plain square dug into the floor and lined with more tile. Half the space was occupied by a staircase with metal handrails. The other half looked just big enough for an adult to stand comfortably without touching the wall or the rails. The room smelled strongly of chlorine and must.
Well, what was she expecting? An exotic spring lined with mossy rocks and hung with vines, with tropical birds calling and mist rising and the Spirit of God hovering upon the surface of the water?
Yeah, sort of.
“Let me just take a look at the back of your neck…” Bilha gently pushed Aliza’s hair off her neck and picked off a stray hair. “There. And now your hands?” Aliza hesitantly turned around and allowed Bilha to examine her fingernails. “Perfect. Go right ahead.”
Aliza stared at the shimmering surface of the water.
“Go ahead and hand me the towel…” Bilha prompted. Aliza unwrapped it, her face growing warm. She wasn’t used to being naked in front of anybody, not even other women.
She took hold of the handrail and stepped into the water, bracing for the cold of a swimming pool, but to her surprise, the water was pleasantly warm. She walked down the staircase and around the rail.
Then she looked up at Bilha sheepishly.
“Um…” she said. “It’s… it’s been a long time… I don’t remember…”
Bilha smiled patiently. “How many times do you immerse?”
Aliza just blinked.
“Three? Seven?” Bilha prompted.
“So hold your arms out in front of you like this,” Bilha demonstrated with her elbows bent. “Then bend your knees and immerse.”
Right. Like a fetus in the womb.
“You make the blessing after the first immersion.” Bilha pointed to a decorative sign on the wall that featured the Hebrew blessing for immersion.
In all this absurdity, it was the blessing part that made Aliza panic for a moment. She wasn’t immersing for the sake of a commandment, so the blessing was unnecessary. Saying it meant taking God’s name in vain, and that was a violation of the third of the Ten Commandments.
Aliza took a deep breath and bent her knees, letting her head slip under the surface of the water. She lingered there for a moment, with her eyes closed, her arms and legs tucked in, floating in the dark and the silent and the warm, hearing her own heartbeat pounding in the veins near her ears.
She straightened her legs, bursting above the surface, the rush of air and the sloshing of the water flooding her ears. “Kosher,” Bilha pronounced.
Aliza wiped the water from her eyes and blinked them open, looking up at the sign with the blessing on it. Blessed are You, Lord, our God, King of the Universe, who has made us holy with His commandments, and commanded us regarding immersion.
She cleared her throat and mumbled it, replacing the name of God with Hashem and Elokeinu. She dove beneath the surface again, hoping Bilha had missed it.
After Aliza’s third immersion, Bilha shuffled towards the top of the staircase and held the towel high, covering her face to give Aliza privacy. Aliza ascended the stairs and took the towel, wrapping it around herself quickly.
“Teet’ḥadshi,” Bilha said. “May it bring you renewal.” She turned and walked out of the immersion chamber.
“Amen,” Aliza whispered.
As soon as she shut the door to the preparation room, still wrapped in the towel, her phone rang. She had half a mind to ignore it, but it was obnoxiously loud in the reverent stillness of the building, so she pulled it out of her bag to silence it.
David’s name was on the screen.
She stared at it for a few seconds.
What if he’s changed his mind?
Maybe he can explain what the hell he meant by “precious friend”?
Part of her longed to hear his voice again, no matter what it said.
But there was a new part of her now.
She took a deep breath, and slowly slid her thumb to the left to decline the call. She stared at the silent phone for another few seconds, feeling a little giddy, and then tossed it in her bag.
She caught sight of her reflection in the mirror. Her curls were matted, and the towel was wrapped tight around her chest. She let go of the towel. It fell around her ankles. Her skin glowed warm in the yellowed light from the bulb over the mirror. She leaned forward, searching her own eyes for the embarrassment or the despair she had felt when examining her reflection minutes earlier. When she found none, she shut her eyes and shook her head vigorously, spattering holy droplets from the mikveh all across the tile, shedding water like her parents’ pet pinscher coming in from the rain.
Bilha was sitting in the waiting room with a money box. Aliza hadn’t realized it cost money to use the mikveh, but somehow the idea of paying made her feel less guilty about the whole affair. As Bilha put the money in the box, she nodded at the wall near the door and said, “The immersion night is an auspicious time for prayer. We have some names up there of people to pray for. You can add some if you like.”
Aliza glanced at the cork billboard crowded with notes, and one of them caught her eye. It was the stationary for one of the drug companies Sarah did advertisements for. She stepped closer and recognized Sarah’s unmistakable round, neat lettering, and she noticed that the fingerprints on the note were still wet.
The note read, “Please pray for a suitable match for Aliza, daughter of Chava.”
Aliza’s tears blurred the words of the note, but she did what it said, and murmured, “Master of the Universe, please send a suitable match for Aliza, daughter of Chava, very soon.”
She wiped her eyes, thanked Bilha, and stepped out into the night.