You’re wearing a shapeless blue parka over your long-sleeved, grey wool dress. Your legs, like mine, are encased in black stockings. As you rock Hanni on your hip, you flick your head and toss your thick, dark hair out of your eyes. The rest of your hair cascades down your back, luxurious and glossy, some of it lingering on the hood of your parka. I want to reach out and lift it so that it falls in a single sheet, like the black, velvet curtain that covers the Torah scrolls in the orun hakoydesh. I picture myself holding a strand of your hair, feeling it between my thumb and my finger as I caress it. I imagine placing my hand gently on your head and stroking the lush hair beneath it. Despite the cold, my body grows warm, until I shiver, knowing what will soon happen to your glorious locks. My throat constricts, thinking about how no hands will ever worship your hair or play with it. Nobody will ever hold the tresses between their fingers and feel its glorious texture. What will your bald head feel like after they cut off all your hair before your wedding? Will the sheitel you wear to replace it shine like your natural hair?
I stand across the street, watching you. If I told you how I follow you with my eyes all the time, what would you do? Would you look at me uncomprehendingly, wondering why a girl would be looking at another girl? Would you be surprised or amused? Or would you whisper softly, “I look at you, too”?
We are not from a world where women love women. We have been raised to be dutiful wives and mothers. We have been told that if we do our duty, love will follow. Our parents will choose grooms who have qualities that complement our own, so that we have the best chance of happiness. What if they could choose girls for us? Do you and I have qualities that complement one another? What would our chance of happiness be?
I learn about you by watching you. I see how you take care of all your little sisters, how right now you’re enjoying the sensation of holding Hanni on your hip with one arm while you extend the other arm to Esti so she can grip your hand as you pace back and forth outside the store. You would make the perfect mameh. But would you make the perfect wife? What are you thinking as you look around at the men who hurry down the street, kept warm in their long black coats and fur-trimmed shtreimels Maybe soon you will be one of the women pushing children in strollers loaded with shopping bags, dipping in and out of stores, buying stationery or groceries, clothing or candy.
I followed you to the store today after I overheard Mrs. Goldstein tell Mameh about your engagement.
“I hope she’ll be happy,” Mameh said. “I always liked Dinah. She and my little Shira used to be such good friends.”
“Of course she’ll be happy,” Mrs. Goldstein said in a sharp rebuke. “Why wouldn’t she be?”
It’s important to be happy in a marriage. Mameh and Tateh are. Mameh says the only sorrow in their lives is that she couldn’t have more children after me. But Tateh never blamed her for it, and never suggested a divorce so he could have more children, which is another reason she’s happy. Will you be happy marrying a man and having his children?
With the baby on your hip and Esti clinging onto your hand, you look like you’re already a mother. Your aunt, Tantah Malka, is inside doing the grocery shopping with Bluma, Pesha and three more of your sisters. I heard her tell Mrs. Farber your mameh needs a break, needs her peace and quiet. Whoever heard of mothers in our neighborhood needing time away from their children? Doesn’t she love them enough? I feel bad for you. Your mameh is so dutiful she has a baby almost every year, but she can’t look after them properly so you and your tantah do everything.
I always believed that the Holy-One-Blessed-Be-He knew that you and I were destined for each other. I thought He would do something so that your parents wouldn’t find you a husband. I thought that, like me, you would find a way to wriggle out of it. Last month Mameh said she was going to meet with the shadchanit, but I told her I wasn’t ready.
“I don’t think I want a shidduch, Mameh,” I said one Friday afternoon as I polished the silver candlesticks making sure they would gleam for shabbes. “I don’t want to get married.”
“Yet,” she corrected me. “You don’t want to get married yet. Maybe you’re scared or worried. There’s nothing to be anxious about, Shira, my songbird.” Mameh picked up the candlestick admiring how it shone. “Marriage is wonderful. Everyone needs a companion in life. Surely you see how happy your tateh and I are? He works hard for us and for the community, but he makes me feel good about my work.”
Mameh is a pharmacist, the only female one in our community. Women treat her more like a counselor. They slip into the pharmacy to get gel to soothe the baby’s gums, but then they ask her things like how they can improve their marital life. She told me this because she says the physical aspect of marriage is very important.
“I was lucky with your tateh,” she told me once. “On our first date, when we discussed what we wanted from marriage, I said, shlom bayis, a harmonious home. Tateh said, ‘The rabbis say that shlom bayis isn’t just about domestic harmony, it’s about keeping your wife happy in all ways.” And he does. Our teacher at school said procreating is the highest commandment so doing it on shabbes, a holy day, is the best time of all. Even though Mameh can’t procreate, they still fulfill the mitzvah. That’s why I always leave the apartment on shabbes afternoon and take a walk or go over to Devorah’s house. When I come back, we have tea and cake, and everyone smiles a lot.
So you see, I know how much physical attraction matters. I don’t know the boy they chose for you, but I know he’s not attractive. There is nothing alluring about those pale, earnest yeshiva boys who look at us surreptitiously when they think we’re not looking. None of them are appealing. How could they be? They don’t have hair like yours, or curves like yours. On Rosh Hashanah you came to schule in a new red dress that clung to your body enough that I could see how your breasts have grown since we were children, and how your hips are soft and wide. I thought I would pass out with longing. I wanted to come toward you and put my arms around you. I wanted to pull you into my body and feel you against me. Instead, I smiled at you, trying to put all my desires into that smile. You saw me, paused for a second, then looked away.
We used to be such good friends, didn’t we? Before your tateh remarried and your new mameh started having all those babies. When it was just you and your older brothers, Dovid and Moishe. We sat next to each other in class and walked to and from school together. Sometimes you invited me and my parents for Friday night and your father quizzed Dovid and Moishe on the weekly Torah portion. Moishe was nice, in a stodgy kind of way, always giving the answer your father expected. Dovid was different. His answers weren’t the rote ones he learned in yeshiva. He put his own thoughts into them and sometimes made me see things in a different light.
I always wondered what really happened to Dovid. It was like he just disappeared. One minute he was graduating yeshiva, getting ready to join your father’s business and get married, and the next, we just never saw him. The rumors were crazy: he stopped believing and ran away to India; he moved to San Francisco and got into drugs; he married a goyishe girl and agreed to bring the children up Catholic. The only one I ever believed was the one they whispered when they thought I didn’t hear them. “He was a faygeleh.”
The word faygeleh means little bird. My name, Shira, means song, and Mameh often calls me her songbird. I thought it was sweet that they would call him a little bird although it seemed more like a description for a girl than a boy. But why would they whisper it like that? I asked Mameh and she said Dovid had always been a nice boy and we shouldn’t gossip about him. So then I looked it up in the dictionary. I read that although it meant little bird, faygeleh was used to describe men who love men the way men are meant to love women. I felt my body go hot and cold all over and wondered: Could girls be faygelehs too?
I want to ask you about Dovid. I want to ask you about so many things. But we don’t talk to each other anymore do we? I don’t know why. We were so close until two years ago when we turned fifteen. We didn’t fight. We didn’t have words. One day we were best friends, doing our homework together, laughing at our private jokes and holding hands as we walked home from school. The next, you stopped talking to me. You started hanging out with Leah. The same Leah we used to make fun of because she always started every sentence the same way:
“When I’m married, I’m going to make so much money my husband will never have to work. He can spend all day studying in yeshiva.”
“When I’m married, I’m going to bake cakes every day, not just for shabbes.”
“When I’m married, I won’t let anyone see a single inch of my flesh, not even my ankles.”
We were fifteen and all she ever talked about was getting married. I see Leah in the neighborhood now with that pasty-looking husband, dragging her twins by the hand, her belly sagging. I thought when she got engaged at sixteen, maybe you’d come back to me, but you didn’t. You switched allegiance to Sarah, and when she got married, your new best friend was Gittel, whose wedding is next month. Now it’s your turn. You’re betrothed, engaged, promised to some boy you’ve probably only met two or three times.
It’s not too late, Dinah.
That’s why I follow you not only with my eyes but with my body. I sit close to you in the schoolyard where we take breaks between classes. I choose the row behind you when we pray in schule. I walk across from you on the other side of the street when you go to the supermarket with your tantah. I’m waiting for the right time to approach you. Because even though you won’t speak to me, I’ve seen the surreptitious looks you give me. You’re just like those yeshiva boys who cast their eyes downward as they walk past, so they won’t be looking directly at me, but then at the last minute, their heads jerk up and they look quickly at my face or my chest. You do the same thing. You turn your head away when I smile at you, but when I look somewhere else, you sneak a glance at me. And when you do, I see everything. Longing and desire, tinged with fear, or is it hope? For those fleeting seconds, I blush and even though winter is whipping a cold wind around us, my body burns.
If I told you what I want and you said you want it too, would you tell me you’re getting married anyway? Or would you find a way not to? You could stay in your parents’ home and tell them you want to look after your siblings because your mameh isn’t up to it. Or maybe we could find a little apartment where we could be maiden tantahs to all the children in the neighborhood. We could have our own bedrooms and once the door was locked behind us, nobody would know that one bedroom was used, and one remained empty. If your parents knew the choice was losing you the way they lost Dovid, maybe they would agree to us being together. There are so many possibilities, if I told you.
You’re giving me one of those surreptitious looks right now, as you pace back and forth with the baby and Esti, and I pretend to read the headlines in the newspaper. You jog the baby up and down on your hip, as if acting like a good yiddishe mameh will make you one. You hold Esti’s hand tight, squeezing it, as if letting go would cause you to fly across the road and into my arms. I want to cross the road, but I’m scared you’ll tell me that it doesn’t matter whether you feel the way I do or not. It can never be. I lift up my head, turning my gaze away from the newspapers and into your eyes. This time, I don’t smile. I send you a message with my eyes: you tell me.
You look flustered. Your face turns red. You look around, and I imagine that you are wondering if you can escape your own needs.
Your tantah comes out of the supermarket. You say something to her. Put the baby in the stroller. Hand Esti over to her. Then, slowly, you turn toward me and walk across the road.
Alison R. Solomon grew up in the U.K. and lived in Israel and Mexico before settling in the USA. She is the author of four mystery novels, Before She Left, Timing Is Everything, Devoted, and Along Came the Rain, and has been published in numerous anthologies and academic books and journals. (For a full list, go to her website.)