Our romance began on Passover and became a lesson in passion, creation and the freedom of choice
Our baby was the size of a lentil, with a poppy-seed heart that beat 167 times per minute, twice the rate of mine. It had veins, brainwaves, arm and leg buds. I was becoming a nicer person. I was nauseous all of the time. The doctor said my uterus was roughly the size of a lemon. There were rational things to consider and then there was the surprising passion of life. There were logistics and then there were miracles. Who could help me to know?
I met Josh on the previous Passover while sitting around a friend’s seder table. Josh arrived late in, as I know now, classic Josh fashion. He was handsome and kind, and he smiled at me from across the table. I liked his family immediately — his beautiful sisters, his little brother who spoke softly and with difficulty, and his nonchalant parents who seemed to smile approvingly at our flirtation across the table. Did I notice then that he was young and somewhat small? I mostly remember his teeth, crooked and pointing in all directions. I found them so beautiful that I had to stop myself from staring at them when he spoke.
A few nights later, as we walked through Harvard Square, we shared Passover cookies my mother had baked. My nervousness expressed itself as aloofness: overly judgmental, overly cool. His nervousness showed itself as nervousness: awkward, clumsy, stilted, tripping over his feet on the sidewalk in his dress shoes. When we ducked into the Harvard Book Store, my favorite in the Square, he followed me around, looking at the books I picked up. I wanted to say, “Go look at your own books! Where’s your initiative?” But I kept quiet, trying to give him a chance, though I became annoyed again when he took a call from his sister and asked if she could join us. I thought then that he was a boy. Somehow, when I met him, he had seemed like a man.
Months later, I ran into him in the halls of the college where we both taught. He had thicker facial hair and wore a tan corduroy jacket and flannel shirt. “Well,” I thought, “perhaps all is not lost.” I suppose I was lonely, having recently moved to Boston and having recently emerged from a year of emotional hell followed by a blissful few months of love with a man who did not stay. I suppose I was also hopeful, remembering the relief I felt at the Passover table when in walked a nice Jewish guy, literate, sensitive, attractive. Josh and I had dinner. He paid for his half only. He delighted me with his wit, and I saw his goodness when he spoke tenderly about his students, but I wished he hadn’t worn a boyish white sweatshirt over his nice work shirt, dirty white sneakers clashing with his pants.
Believe me when I tell you that I’m not superficial. I can go weeks without lifting a brush to my hair or applying makeup to my face. However, his style pointed not only to a different sense of aesthetic but also to a different way of seeing the world — conventional, conservative, unrefined. Like eating at an Outback steak house, I just wouldn’t do it. He was five years younger than me, but there was also a class difference between us. I grew up on brown rice and tofu; he was raised on powdered milk and store-brand cereal. I worried that our clashing styles and upbringings might signal deep differences too challenging to overcome. But I clung to my therapist’s urgings to avoid carefully picking out the possible failings of any potential partner: “Don’t be so black-and-white, Gila. If you had told me I’d marry a physicist ten years my senior, I would have laughed. But here I am.”
So, I gave up. One night he biked over to return a book I had lent him. We sat on my bed. He was sweaty and breathless from the ride over. I wore a big red sweatshirt and black leggings, feeling particularly unattractive and having just come from the gym. I was in the middle of a story about my day when he leaned over and kissed me. I was surprised and kept talking because I wanted to finish my story, because the kiss was dry and because I wasn’t sure how I felt. He kissed me again, in the middle of another sentence, leaning on one arm on my mattress. I kept talking. The third time I thought, “I’ll give it five minutes. If I don’t feel anything, we’ll stop.” There were a few moments of numbness. I felt nothing. Then the floodgates opened.
I think we had sex for five months straight. We made love on our beds, floors and kitchen chairs; in cars and in my closet, falling against sweaters and dresses in the dark, with white plastic hangers hitting our faces like wedding rice. One night he came in out of the wind and rain, and once he was in my room, coins kept spilling out of his pockets. Even when he had no clothes on, there were coins everywhere, coming off of him like gold. All night long, strong rains and wind shook my tiny triangular room at the top of the stairs. Raindrops on the window screen caught by the orange streetlight burned like embers. When I got up to pee in the middle of the night, coins that had been stuck to my legs rained off my skin as I stepped down the stairs, making a sound like wind chimes and xylophones. In the morning, the sun shone on gold keys and quarters on the wooden floor of my room. I spent all day thinking about his mouth.
When we lay together, I thought, “Drink him in.” I thought, “There is nothing that could make us not together, nothing either of us could do, nothing that could happen.” His voice, intelligence, attention, and humor were like medicine to me. I felt shaky without them. When he flew to Israel for a month, I wondered like an addict how I’d make it through the days. I crossed dates off my calendar like a girl. My dreams were full of his arms and fingers, like how I would dream about bread every Passover, my subconscious providing what my life lacks.
I see now that the intensity and urgency of my love was too fiercely exaggerate by the copious amounts of sex we had – the chemicals released, the pheromones inhaled, my own biology craving to house something inside it. I loved his smile, his dark humor, his caring, the gentle and generous way he dealt with others and with me. I held him, and though at times he still seemed like a boy, he seemed like my boy.
It bothered me that he lived like a teenager – rolls of quarters and half-drunk glasses of milk on his dresser, his perpetually dirty sheets and laundry that smelled unclean even when fresh from the dryer. It bothered me that he arrived late for our dates and for his own appointments, and that even though he was extremely talented, he wasn’t trying to advance his career or his writing as quickly or ambitiously as I thought he could. In moments when my brain wasn’t loopy with hormones, I considered the practicalities of our life together. A friend said that a serious partnership is like starting a business. While I trusted his heart, his business skills seemed to be lacking.
He came with me to the doctor for a consultation. We held hands. The doctor looked at us both. “You’re smart people,” she said, “you’ll do the right thing.” My breasts were huge and my skin amazingly clear. I started taking prenatal vitamins, just in case.
The due date would be in November, between our two birthdays. I took days off of work and browsed online pictures of what our baby might look like under a microscope. A human tadpole. Nothing but an eyelash of spine, a pinprick eye, an amalgam of peach tissue and miniscule veins. A Jewish embryo, all brain and hair. Josh brought me ginger ale, macaroni and cheese, and baked potatoes and encouraged me to eat toast before bed so I wouldn’t wake nauseous. I gained ten pounds of pure carb weight in one month. I felt unattractive in an entirely new way, like an honor, an important padded vessel. I loved it.
Before bed, we’d review our creation story.
“What did you do the first time you kissed me?” I’d ask, like a child hearing a bedtime story she knows by heart.
“What was I talking about? How did you feel? And then what did you do? And then what did you do?”
But I started thinking, “We could have saved ourselves so much trouble. Why did I kiss you back?”
Our un-readiness for marriage and parenthood became undeniably apparent. So, too, did our conflicting ideas about money, life opportunities, and each other. He became distant and vague, a man going out of focus, which made me sharp and mean. My best friend said she’d get pregnant, too, and we’d move to a farm together and raise our babies in Arizona. Underneath it all, I knew Josh wasn’t right for me, hadn’t been from the start. And I didn’t want to have his baby. “There’s nowhere to go from here,” I said one night. “Just stay with me until this is over.”
Because he was a good person, Josh came over each night, sometimes to talk, other times to do something mindless to take our minds off the decision we would sooner and sooner need to make. One night, I defrosted a generous piece of ice cream cake for us to share while watching “The Daily Show.” It sat in a purple bowl on my desk while we fought and cried, and eventually it turned into soup and fluffy inedible white frosting, rainbow sprinkles melting in pools of their color.
“This ice cream is a metaphor,” I said to him.
“Sometimes ice cream is just ice cream,” he said.
“We’re going to let this go to waste,” I said, unsure whether I meant our relationship, our baby or both.
He got up and spooned the warm dripping mass into his mouth. “Stop eating,” I said, “you’ll make yourself sick.”
“We have different definitions of love,” he said between bites, “and according to yours I love you. According to mine, I can’t.”
A river of blood on the second day of Passover. It was the best day for me to do it. I had a week off from school, and I was told I should stay off my feet for a while afterward. I woke in the most comfortable leather chair I had ever been in, my body so relaxed as to be immobile. I was shivering despite the white blankets piled on top of me; an IV bag of water dripping into my veins was chilling me from the inside.
“Is it over?” I asked the nurse who was sitting at a desk in the recovery room.
“All over, sweetheart,” she said.
“I’m freezing,” I told her.
“Let’s get that IV out.” She removed the ice-water needle with a pinch. “You can leave when you can stand up on your own to pee,” she said. I tried to move my legs, but they were heavy sacks of mud. I leaned my head against the chair and dozed a little. Girls in various stages of awake laid limp in the overstuffed chairs. Everyone seemed so small.
I drank a paper cup full of ice chips until I was able to waddle over to the bathroom. The nausea was gone – it was exhilarating. I ate a hard grape Jolly Rancher from a glass bowl next to the sink and didn’t want to puke it up. Instant — just like that.
“It’s just a mass of tissue,” the doctor had said before she put me to sleep. “Not anything like a baby.”
“But it had a heart,” I thought, or said aloud.
The next few days, matzah tasted better than anything I had ever had. Matzah and butter with salt, matzah with brie, matzah crushed up with raisins in a bowl full of yogurt. It was unbelievably liberating to be able to eat again, to have an appetite. Passover, festival of freedom, slaying of the first-born — these ideas swam through my thoughts as I regained my regular body and hormone levels. I felt lucky to live in a place and at a time when I could make decisions about the destiny of my own life and about whom I would couple with — and when and why. I ate bowls of red beet borsht, globs of fuchsia horseradish on thick slices of gefilte fish. The festival of freedom. Moses in his basket, saved on a river that would soon become blood.