Spain in August, as perhaps you’ve heard, is hot. The house we’re borrowing has no pool, no A/C, no fans, even. If you leave anything outside the fridge, it is, in mere moments, claimed by flies, colonized by ants — or it collapses in on itself, like a black hole.
The house’s primary occupants only ever come here during the winter, and they warned us. “August?” they said politely, when we unfurled our plans. So excited were we to get a chance to come to Spain that we didn’t think too clearly or ask too many probing questions, like “How far is the beach?” or “What do you do for Internet?” It was a house! In Spain! How important could such quibbles be? And, of course, we’re grateful, stupidly grateful to be here. Don’t mistake me. This expression you see on my face, between the mosquito bites? That’s gratitude. It’s just: Oh man, those bites. We all have so many red dots everywhere that we look like ongoing games of Connect Four.
It took us much longer since neither of us knew the rules — Mr. Ben had never played before, and I only vaguely recalled the endless furious battles for world domination that once took over my childhood. In fact, I think we’re still playing, even though we’ve long since packed away the board, complimented each other on a good game, and declared it a draw. In marriage, there is no draw; there is only victory assured and victory delayed, and each of us continues plotting that devastating sneak attack to secure Ukraine.
Speaking of Mr. Ben, my life’s companion, my heart’s desire, and my co-lugger of suitcases through five different airports, he has discovered in himself an ability to drive stick. Thanks to his intrepidity, we’ve also made it to a small public pool not too far away, and to the beach, where we have submerged our miserable bodies and found some relief.
We’ve also wandered around the distressingly touristy, overpriced Costa Blanca town of Denia,waiting to be inspired. Instead, we have mostly encountered mediocre food at alarming prices. In rough moments, I think Denia has all the charm, grace, & beauty of Tel Aviv, only without the character or the quality meals; then I repent and admit that some of the streets wind pleasantly through plazas, and there is, after all, a castle. Anyway, we’ve decided to take a break from our vacation and run away to the more gracious inland city of Cuenca, capital of La Mancha, for a few days. Next week, before we fly out via Madrid, we will probably spend some time in Toledo, too.
Basically, what I’m saying is, we are snobs, and also I am spoiled from having so recently, and at long last, been in England. History! Literature! Architecture! Quaintness and cuteness and politeness, oh my. If only I could package up some of Spain’s excess sunshine and bring it to Gloucestershire, I would lack for nothing.
As my reading list reflects, I have only left the UK physically. Since coming to Spain, thanks partly to the excellent library of my hosts, I’ve been on a mostly anglophile tear, making my way through:
* Foreign Affairs, the largely forgotten Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Alison Lurie
* At Last, the final Patrick Melrose novel, by Edward St. Aubyn
* One Man’s Meat, by E.B. White — American, but with a very proper British appreciation for dry humor, the past, and the foibles of his fellow man. And to give you a sense of how blurbs have evolved since the 30’s, when White first wrote this collection of essays, this edition quotes the Yale Review as proclaiming it “Good writing.”
* The second half of Gaudy Night, by Dorothy Sayers — for the 52nd time, because it is here, it is her best (well, one of them), and I cannot help myself.
To Cuenca, I will probably bring Parrot and Oliver in America, and, of course, the game of Risk!
The “Great Escape” Mr. Ben and I originally considered involved going away for six months or a year. We figured that while babygirl was between nine months and two years old, she would be portable — or, at least, as portable as she would ever be outside the womb. (Taking her anywhere, even as a small ten-month-old with few material possessions, is still reminiscent of the scene in the desert in Spaceballs, when the crew has to shlep all of the Princess’s matched luggage. It’s enough to make me nostalgic for the relative ease of pregnancy.)
Well, we had to scale back the dream a bit, for various very sensible reasons. But the dream lives. For an entire year, I will focus on writing: the manuscript of the novel I’m currently working on, a revision of the novel I wrote when I first came to New York, perhaps more short pieces for the Internet, since the thrill of contributing to Slate and the Hairpin and those kinds of places has yet to wear off. To start the year off with a bang, I signed up for the Summer Literary Seminars program in Vilnius, Lithuania, to study fiction with Jami Attenberg in the mornings and non-fiction with Alex Halberstadt in the afternoons. Since both of these writers are Jews living in Brooklyn, it feels appropriately inefficient and complex — you know, Soviet! — to come halfway around the globe to an Eastern European capital from which my ancestors fled in droves to take workshops with them.
Best of all, Mr. Ben knit together seven weeks of leave from his job of vacation time and FMLA leave so that he could come too and bring babygirl. (By contrast, I parted ways with my job, where I spent four interesting and meaningful years and still have coworkers I care about.) After my two weeks at SLS, we go to Britain in order to fulfill a dream of Mr. Ben’s (about which more later), and then the coast of Spain, where family friends have an empty house that they have offered up. Old-world capital, English countryside, Mediterranean coast: this is “Eat, Pray, Love” done the Balynker-Gloom way. As my Aunt Marjy put it, Lara’s “How I Spent My Summer Vacation” essay is going to be the best ever!
Our passports got stamped in Copenhagen, where we spent an endless layover thinking wistfully about the sophisticated Scandinavians — so clean and organized, and yet so child-friendly! — and whether we were crazy to take an infant to the Baltic. Then a plane as long as two minivans lashed together whisked us away from Danish paradise and dropped us off on a rainy Lithuanian tarmac. The weather only got soggier as we made our way to the apartment we secured on AirBnB, and babygirl only got more upset as we set up her travel crib and put her in it for the first time. (Eighteen hours on the road and all I get is this big mesh box?) There were bright spots even then, though, specifically the apartment, which reflects the taste of its owner, a talented graphic designer. It’s hard to be unhappy in a place with a bright yellow vintage fridge.
The next day the sun came out, as cheerful as a bright yellow vintage fridge, and we ventured forth into a walkable and surprisingly lovely, low-key city that didn’t feel too different, after all, from Copenhagen. We’ve met a couple of motorcycle-riding Lithuanians who have a daughter Lara’s age, and a plethora of poets (“Which MFA program are you in?”) with inner-arm tattoos, which seems to be the thing these days, like side shaves. We’ve overheard some live foreign-language Christian rock (“Yesu, Yesu …”) and lots of recorded hip hop, which is a bit jarring in a country full of pale blond people, and eaten lots of dill and some ham already by mistake and really good Latvian yogurt.
Even my ancestors would, I think, appreciate this town. I can hear them crowded around me as Lara plays in the sandbox at the heart of what was once the sprawling Jewish ghetto: “Hmph. Not too bad, when the clouds disperse. It has potential.” And then, inevitably, “Her hat! Make sure she keeps her hat on!”
I didn’t have Christmas growing up, so I never got what was funny about leg lamps. I never sang “Jingle Bells” unironically or even saw It’s a Wonderful Life. Over the years, mostly from pop culture parodies, I’ve picked up the salient bits: small-town family, bad bankers, wise angels, rash decision reversed, and voila! Happily ever after. That understanding in no way prepared me for my first real Christmas, which I celebrated with my Russian-Jewish father-in-law, his Italian-American wife, her brother the priest, and the priest’s surprise.
As a child, I was an outsider when the whole country went Christmas crazy. I had only Hannukah, which is like a kid playing a kazoo on the sidelines while a marching band in full regalia, with cheerleaders and baton twirlers and gymnasts and everything, spends a month slowly parading by. Then, I got older, and the meaning of Christmas evolved—it became the time I got laid off. Twice, including once during the Great New York Transit Strike of 2005. Even for someone who doesn’t celebrate the baby Jesus, that’s pretty harsh.
My first real Christmas on the inside made all the difference. Suddenly I understood. We go nuts for four to six weeks in advance of this holiday because it’s terrifying. 24 hours with our families where we’re expected to be kinder, gentler, more charitable versions of our screwed up selves? Where we have to open boxes of things we never wanted in front of everyone and pretend to be excited, while nervously watching everyone else open the presents we got them to see if they’re sufficiently appreciative? Where we have several meals with extended family members and in-laws, who take a long looks at us and comment on whether we’re more or less skinny than before? Those stakes are high.
Mr. Ben, my husband, is also Jewish, but unlike me, he grew up with mistletoe and ornaments. His father brought the tradition over from Russia when he emigrated; there, under Communism, it was a Secular Mandatory Fun Day, with the part of Big Brother played by the ominous-sounding Father Snow. (Particularly ominous if you’ve read Game of Thrones.)
Once we were living together and engaged, Mr. Ben asked me to come to Christmas. For reasons of principle, I was hard to convince, but finally, like anyone who’s ever been in a lasting relationship, I caved. Mr. Ben’s dad’s second wife, Carla, was Italian and an excellent cook; she also had a reputation for giving such good presents that all the Hunger Games-level agony of Christmas shopping became retroactively worth it. Between a bounty of material goods and Martha Stewart-type treats, I figured the holiday would be painless, maybe even kind of fun.
Carla had invited her brother Ned, a 50-year-old Catholic priest, as well as their aged old-world Italian mother. Shortly before he arrived, Ned told Carla that he would be accompanied by his friend, Winston.
Ned went to seminary at 18. He had never so much had dated a girl; from childhood, his vocation was clear. That is partly why Ned’s mother, always so proud of her son the priest, looked confused to be introduced to Winston, a very nice middle-aged Asian-American man. Mr. Ben’s Russian grandmother sat next to her on the couch across from the fireplace, perhaps thinking that the fact that her own son had re-married a shiksa now seemed not so bad. Winston and Ned, oblivious, glowed happily next to each other on the piano bench.
Still: Christmas! A brightly-lit, colorfully-decorated tree presided over an avalanche of boxes and bags. Delicious smells wafted from the kitchen, where Carla, tongue-tied with awkwardness, had escaped to tend to the meal.
“Let’s play a duet!” Ned suggested.
“Great!” replied Winston.
Being that this was my first real Christmas, I had no idea whether any of this was normal. Maybe Catholic priests always used Christmas with their Russian-Jewish extended families to come out to their horrified, blindsided mothers, one piano duet at a time. Or maybe Winston was really just a friend and we were all over-reacting.
As we began to exchange presents en masse, that hope faded. “For you!” said Ned.
“Thank you!” cried Winston, opening a box of two button-down shirts: one bright purple, the other bright pink. “And that one’s for you.”
Ned picked up the flat package and ripped it open. “Oh my gosh!” he said. “You didn’t!”
Ned showed us the present he had just received, and I choked on my Diet Coke. It was a framed, signed poster of “Will and Grace.”
The next morning, Ned’s mother and Carla appeared dressed and ready for church. Ned and Winston came out of the guest room dressed and ready to go antiquing. It was at this point that Ned’s mother’s heart fell to the hardwood floor like a big red shiny ornament and smashed into a million pieces. We could all hear it except for Ned, who, with Winston, went on his merry way. And at last, Christmas was over.
Ned and Winston now live together in a wonderful old house in Amish country with two pianos and lots of knickknacks. Ned is no longer a priest. I don’t know if he ever officially came out to the family or whether he figures that, after the “Will and Grace” poster, it would be redundant, but he has reconciled with his mother, who is very fond of Winston. And I have learned that while Thanksgiving may be a big deal for drama, Christmas totally takes the (fruit)cake.
Labor progressed early, as I mentioned, leading me to the hospital within hours; then a mean midwife threw me into reverse and sent me home. An hour later, though, I was back to where I started, contracting regularly, and in increasing, sledge-hammer quality pain from what turned out to be back labor. But we couldn’t go to the hospital or we’d be back once more under the jurisdiction of the mean midwife. We decided to tough it out at home.
From about 12:30 AM until 6:30, we used the tools at our disposal: a yoga mat, water, highly-diluted Vitamin Water, bendy straws, massage, frozen vegetables, mantras, more water, and a rubber ducky from the O’Haire Motor Inn in Montana. There was also quite a bit of cursing and crying. Every few minutes, I looked at Mr. Ben and said either: “It huuuuuurts” or “I can’t do it. I’m sorry, honey, I can’t.” And he would say, “You are doing it. You’re doing great,” and empty the freezer of more bagged produce to push against my back.
“Breathe, honey,” he told me. “Don’t forget to breathe. Keep breathing.”
We ruined the frozen corn, the raspberries, the edamame, turned them all to slime. I didn’t notice. I sprawled on the bathroom floor in various positions, clutching my husband’s hand, listening to him tell me it would be okay. I spent about an hour in the shower and then another hour in the bath with him pouring water on me, singing to me, doing anything he could to distract me from my certainty that I couldn’t do it, that I couldn’t push to the other side of the smashing, obliterating pain.
BEN NOTE: The pain had a predictable peak, it would be painful and seem endurable, and then would ebb, and then would come back much much stronger and you would cry out and you would have to breathe in and out about four times until it was finally over. I was aware of every contraction because I was trying to time them on the app I had downloaded to my iPod touch, at least at first. I stopped for a while when I realized that we were in it for the long haul and the contractions were not really changing in length or frequency much.
(Hereafter Mr. Ben’s comments are in blue bracketed italics within the text.)
I shivered, and then I sweated, and then I shivered again. [We got to know our bathroom floor better than any other bathroom floor before or since.] I drank what felt like gallons of water [in fact you took on the tiniest sips that I had to force on you] until the very sight of a bendy straw made me nauseous. When I could catch my breath between contractions, I repeated a phrase from a prayer my shul’s congregation recites every Shabbes: “We have not come into being to hate or to destroy; we have come into being to praise, to labor, and to love.” Possibly this nauseous, moaning, hand-gripping, childbirth-type labor was not exactly what the writers of that prayer had in mind, but the words helped soothe me, even the tiniest bit, so I kept saying them. To praise, to labor, and to love.
And eventually, after hours that felt like whole deserts that had to be crawled across, the sun began to rise, timed perfectly to a newer, even more intense kind of pain and pressure. If I stayed at home any longer, I felt like I would have the baby right there on the bathroom floor, which, though not cold, hard Mexican ceramic tile, was not my ideal birthing locale, either. Mr. Ben called a car and a portly bearded man from Arecibo arrived with his chariot. “It’s okay, Mama-ji,” he told me as he helped unload me in front of Park Slope Methodist hospital in the misty half-light. “Girls do this every day, all over the world. Fifteen, sixteen year old girls!”
All the wheelchairs must have gossiping over their morning coffee together or something, because the lobby was empty. A resident who happened to be walking by changed direction and helped Mr. Ben support me up to Labor and Delivery. At that point, I could barely stand on my own. “I can’t do this,” I told Mr. Ben for the bazillionth time as we made it to triage. “You are doing it,” he assured me. The nurses summoned the midwife on call, and we held our collective breath until she entered — Donna, one of the other four midwives, a practical, confidence-inspiring woman with a wry sense of humor. Glory be, Hosannah, we had done it. If I could have relaxed, I would have. The mean midwife faded from memory as Donna took charge.
[SPOILER ALERT: FROM HERE ON OUT, THINGS GET KIND OF GRAPHIC. AS DR. SPACEMAN SAID, WHEN PRESIDING OVER A BIRTH, “EVERYTHING ABOUT THIS IS DISGUSTING!” READ AT YOUR OWN RISK.]
“Seven centimeters,” she told me. “Let’s get you to a room.” [That moment was one that I will never forget. Donna waited for a contraction to end, and you whimpered “It huuurts” while you were having the contraction. Then when it was done, she stuck her fingers up into your vagina and said, “You’re seven centimeters dilated” and smiled, and then I think she said “You’re not kidding it hurts.” I was so relieved, I just beamed at you. Because up until that point I really didn’t know how painful it had to be. Everyone was saying that women want the epidural at 3-4 centimeters, and I was just praying that we had gotten at least a little further than that. When we were at seven, I knew that we had gotten through the worst, the endurance/psychology of pain part.]
For the first time in my life, I saw things from the perspective of a patient on a gurney as I was wheeled through double doors and down a hall. [And I got to be by your side in the crowd of nurses and midwife wheeling the gurney!] For the first time, I felt myself attached to an IV and then given a HepLock so that I could move around. Seven centimeters meant that I had made it through active labor and was now in transition: the most challenging phase but also the shortest, and the very last before pushing. A very nice nurse asked me if I wanted an epidural. [She said it in a really sweet voice, like she was offering you candy. She was not making it easy for you to say “no thanks.”] I quavered. If I got the drugs, I could stop feeling like I was being repeatedly run over by an SUV. But they might also interfere with the last stage of the process and lead to a c-section.
The only decision I could make was that I wanted to be in the shower again. [Actually, you looked at me and said “I think I might want the epidural . . . .” And the nurse said “OK,” and started making arrangements for it. And then I had to say “she hasn’t decided yet,” because I knew that your use of the word “might” meant that you weren’t sure.] Charrow appeared and she and Mr. Ben together took on the job of getting me from 7 cm to 10 and across the finish line. They supported me as I stood crying under the [pathetically low-water-pressure] faucet, trying to twist myself into a comfortable position; afterwards, they took turns rubbing my back and holding my hand, listening to me babble and telling me I was doing great. They used up all the cold-packs in the room and moved on to latex gloves filled with ice, which they had to refill from the machine in the hall. I couldn’t have made it through without them. They propelled me forward; they propped me up; they cheered me on.
Then it was time to push.
“Hold your breath, bear down, and then roar like a lion,” said my otherwise sensible midwife. I looked at her like she was crazy, but she didn’t offer an alternative. I tried, though I wasn’t very successful. After several really strong contractions, she broke my water for me on the table and unspeakable liquids poured out of me, including meconium, a sign of fetal distress. Donna’s demeanor didn’t change — she remained calm and controlled — but a grim nervousness settled around the table: it was clear that I needed to deliver the baby soon. An hour later I was doing no better at the purple pushing. “I can’t, I can’t,” I sobbed. “She’s coming, she’s coming!” everyone replied. “Just a little more! We can see her hair!”
Donna summoned a team of pediatricians to be on hand as soon as the baby emerged. I was beginning to feel like she never would. All there would ever be of her was hair. Why had I not immediately said yes to the drugs? I couldn’t stand the pain; the pain was bigger than I was and it had eaten me alive. I wanted to go unconscious, to have them cut the baby out of me, to be done with all of this. I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t.
“Her head! It’s coming! Just a little more!”
Mr. Ben on one side, Charrow on the other, pushing with me, crying with me; the nurse and the midwife exhorting me from between my legs; the unbelievable pressure; the pediatricians grouped just out of sight, waiting; roaring; and finally, finally, a tremendous swoosh and release. Donna caught something squirming and hot and passed it to the pediatricians. My eyes couldn’t focus — I found out later than I had burst blood vessels in and around them, leaving me looking like a boxer who’d gone down in the fifth. Charrow stayed with me while Mr. Ben followed the tiny, messy human being struggling in the gloved hands of the doctors.
[Things happened very quickly: there was the moment when Donna pulled over her rolling tray covered with surgical tools from the side of the room. Then there was the moment when they got your legs into the stirrups, the moment when there was a quick snip snip that no one commented on, but I asked about afterwards, and the moment when they put the big blue tarp up to catch whatever liquid came out with the baby. When the baby came out, it looked like the impossible was happening, it looked like CGI. There was this smushy yellow elongated alien with hair and eyes that emerged out of the area immediately next to your vag.]
An aggrieved cry resounded through the hospital room and we all breathed again. “Can I stop pushing now?” I asked the nurse, who rewarded me with a laugh. Then I added, “OK, I’ll take the drugs.” Charrow grinned. A world with no contractions in it! The very air was euphoric. My sense of humor, my sense of self, came back. I had a brief glimpse of something pulsing, huge, and red, like a jellyfish from outer space, as Donna delivered my placenta and started sewing me back together.
Lara had come out occipital posterior, or sunny-side up, which is rare and accounts for the extra difficulty of the delivery, including a natural tear and Donna’s small incision. (Which, by the way? OUCH.) The difficulty was compounded by Lara holding one fist stubbornly next to her face, like a stuffed animal she was clinging to, as she emerged.
The doctors finished prodding the baby, whose Apgar score had gone from an initial, worrisome 4 to a robust 8 within minutes, and handed her to me to warm up against my chest. She was skinny and long, funny-colored and scrunchy-faced, with lots of dark hair and an exhausted look in her eyes that I could imagine mirrored the one in mine. She was amazing: an amphibian churned out of dark water and thrown up on the shore of my body. All I could do was hold her and breathe.
Nearly two months later, I haven’t advanced much further than that, but she has. She’s become a very successful, charming, chubby little mammal who seems none the worse for her atypical delivery. I spend half my day staring at her, trying to wrap my mind around the fact that she used to be floating inside me, and and now thrives on the milk my all-you-can-eat Brestaurant provides. We had quite an adventure together, her and her father and me, one I can’t imagine two of the three of us, or Aunt / Doula Charrow, will ever forget.
How is it possible almost six weeks have passed and I haven’t chilled you to the bone with my How I Had My Baby story? Well, grab your warmest blanket and a mug of hot chocolate, kidlets, because here we go.
Thanks to an incredible series of classes with doula and midwife-assistant Shara Frederick and some serious book learnin’, both on the subject of childbirth itself and, more broadly, on the question of what kind of parent I didn’t want to be, I felt reasonably prepared for what was to come. (As part of that intelligence-gathering effort, I reviewed a couple of the Bad Mommy Memoirs I plowed through for Cheek Teeth: Are You My Mother? and Why Be Happy When You Can Be Normal?) I knew it would be difficult, especially for someone with so little experience dealing with enduring pain, but I also knew that putting it off wouldn’t make it any easier. So BRING IT ON, said I.
It was like shouting at the ocean. The baby had her own plan. In accordance with that plan, I found myself a week later still pregnant, still awkward and sore and quite tired of the ten-month gestation process. My “What to Expect” app had run out of even semi-useful tips and had started preparing me to “Start losing the baby weight!” First I need to lose the baby, I growled.
In an effort to lose it — or, more specifically, to loose it — on my due date, Monday, Sept 10, I got a prenatal massage from the fabulous folks at the Providence Day Spa on Atlantic Avenue and then ate a brownie the size of a cinder block.
I’m not sure which was more delicious.
By the time I was done, the contractions were both noticeable and regular, and the birth team stood ready: Mr. Ben with his catcher’s mitt out, Charrow in a rubber apron and gloves. We expected the early stages of labor to be rather slow-going, since it can often take at least half a day to make significant progress. But again, the baby had her own plans. After just a few hours, the contractions had gotten stronger and closer together enough that Mr. Ben called the midwives and the midwives said head to the birthing center.
CONTRACTIONS. MIDWIVES. BIRTHING CENTER. There’s been an infant cooking in my belly or dangling from my breasts for almost a year now and I still can’t believe this is my life. [/end note]
We gathered the ten bags of stuff we had put aside to bring to the hospital, called a car, and got to Methodist at about 8:00 PM. The pain was still manageable; everyone was excited; it seemed like perhaps the baby could propel herself out that very night and avoid the trauma of having her birthday forever synonymous with national tragedy.We all squeezed hands and waited for the midwife to come in.
There were five women in the midwife practice, and whoever happened to be on call when I went into labor would be my sherpa for this arduous, uncertain journey. Five women, and I really liked four of them. Any one of them would be fine; I wasn’t picky! Just, please, I told Mr. Ben, not Grumpy Gail — she had the bedside manner of a 12-year-old boy.
Naturally, the midwife on call was Grumpy Gail, giving my laboring body a choice to make. Should I keep barreling forward and aim to have the baby on September 10th, or throw the process into reverse and (probably) have the baby on September 11th with one of the others? The decision was made before I was even conscious of what it meant. My labor shuddered to a halt. Grumpy Gail sent us home with instructions to drink some wine, get some sleep, and come back in the morning.
Unfortunately, it turned out, the baby could only be put off for so long. About an hour after I tried to go to bed a contraction woke me with the force of a sledgehammer. It was followed in short order by another contraction, and another, both of which made the contractions of the evening — even the ones that sent me to the birth center — seem like cuddly embraces. There was no going back to sleep; no vineyard on earth had ever made wine strong enough to help me now. But what could we do? If we went back to the birthing center, we would have to put our trust in Grumpy Gail to see us through, and that was why we had left in the first place.
We decided to tough it out until dawn, when we figured the shift change would bring another midwife. What I didn’t fully grasp was that I was also electing to go through what would turn out to be a night of back labor at home without any kind of drugs. Back labor. At home. Drug free.
That, friends, is where our story really gets going. Stay tuned for Part Two!
And, in a manner that called to mind my ten-year-old self when first I played Spin the Bottle, the bride and groom leaned into each other and kissed.
“Gorka! Gorka!” the crowd continued to chant, as insatiable as only drunk crowds can be, egging on each other and the newly-married couple. Russian relatives began to count, making it to ten (dyecyat’!) and then fifteen (pyat’nadyecyat’!) before the couple broke apart to breathe and the crowd erupted in applause.
This tradition is the Slavic equivalent, apparently, of the groom removing the bride’s garter. I have never seen that done — the weddings I’m invited to are generally high-brow affairs, full of literary pomp and godly circumstance. But I have heard garter removal is a thing, like bouquet tossing (does that too happen in real life, or only in movies?).
My old friend L., with whom I recently reconnected, married her long-term boyfriend S. this past weekend in Somerville, Massachusetts, and even by the unconventional standards of my friends’ nuptials, their celebration was unique. Instead of a rabbi, they tapped a friend of theirs, an earnest, bearded, young PhD candidate, to officiate; instead of a cantor, they asked another friend of theirs, also earnest and scholastic but much taller, to chant. No conventional authority figure at all, in fact, was there to solemnize the union. Instead, the bride and groom — both serious students themselves — canonized Academia itself. With help from Rachel Adler’s Engendering Judaism and several other texts, the couple redesigned the ceremony to fit their principles, explaining as they went the significance of each amended ritual.
I’ve been to Jewish weddings before, of course, but this was my first Jewish Studies wedding. The professors in the audience looked very proud.
It was also the most Russian of any wedding I’ve ever been to, since the groom is himself an immigrant. There were vodka shots (served with pickles) and, in lieu of an American-style wedding cake, a proud Russian aunt’s home-made “Napoleon,” the product of two weeks of work. It was, appropriately, large enough to serve an army.
“Could you eat the entire thing?” my table-mate whispered to me. “If you had to? If the lives of your family members were at stake?”
This table-mate, R., had been seated next to me by chance. I introduced myself; she stared at me with such intense focus I half-expected her to kiss me on the mouth. Instead she asked, “Did you live off Oregon Avenue?”
“Uh,” I replied. “Yes?”
“I know you!” she said. “We used to ride the bus together! Oh my god. Oh my god. I know you. This is too strange. We were really good friends.”
I looked at her, trying to remember her (remembering is one of the things I’m usually good at). She beamed while I flailed.
“This is so embarrassing,” she said, “but I … well, I was four years older than you, and you were my little friend. We sat together on the bus! Until, well, one day … I hit you.”
Hit me? Why?
“I don’t know! I think it was some sort of power thing! It was totally unprovoked.” Her mouth twisted with the pain of the memory. “You were so small! And your hair was red?”
“It’s still auburn,” I said defensively. “Especially in the sunlight.”
She looked unconvinced but went on. “Anyway, it was terrible! I hit you! Then you told your mom, who called my mom, and I got in trouble. We weren’t friends after that. And then I switched schools. But oh my god, I can’t believe I get a chance to apologize. I’m so sorry!”
Nothing about this sounded familiar. Yes, I rode the bus, I lived off Oregon Avenue, and yes, I was small with redder hair. But if I had been hit — for no reason, by a girl four years older than myself — surely that would have left an emotional mark?
Her eyes pleaded with me and I did the only reasonable thing. “It’s totally okay,” I said. “I forgive you.”
“Really?” she said.
“Yes,” I said. “You’re absolved.”
“I can’t wait to tell my mother!” she said. “I’m going to text her right now.”
“Gorka! Gorka!” cried the crowd. It seemed like the increasingly raucous guests were not going to be happy until the bride and groom actually did it on the floor in front of everyone and managed to conceive a child.
“Russians,” I said to Mr. Ben, shaking my head. He grinned at me. Then the Klezmer band started up, leading the guests in a parade across the street, back to the bride-and-groom’s apartment courtyard, where we danced until we could dance no more, and Rachel Adler had nothing whatever to say about it.
Last night, after Mr. Ben and I finished playing Dance Central and got into bed, I started thinking about all the things I appreciate about our relationship. (Like our video game system! No, just kidding. I mean real, substantive things.) Like …
We’re On the Same Page
When one of the various alarms in our apartment goes off at night, we have the mutual reaction: “Let’s take the batteries out and hope we don’t die in our sleep.”
We Speak The Same Language
Which is a bizarro, unintelligible one. A good portion of our daily conversation is made up of quotes from Clueless and Pulp Fiction. I’d hazard a guess that it is vital that if you go into an impromptu Massacre Theatre routine, your partner laughs rather than assumes you have gone cray-cray.
Like religious observance. We’re both Jews, so neither of us is Rapture-ready for the morrow or, failing that, for when Jesus comes back in 2012.
We’re both skeptical of religion in general ways, yet we go together to shul on Saturday mornings. In fact, my actually-Rapture-ready friend Tara Leigh is coming with us tomorrow! As she mentioned on Twitter:
The point is, if the world ends tomorrow or next year, I’m glad I will be hand in hand with a really good guy who agrees that washing glasses really isn’t so necessary when it’s just the two of us drinking water from them most of the time.
I’ll have your babies! Let’s mash our eggs together (science, you know, whatever) and I’ll take care of the resulting children. You can see them whenever you want!
This may sound forward of me. After all, you don’t know who I am; in fact, I could be the kind of 5’7″ blond, sweet, well-adjusted lady who would scar a kid for life, if that kid were like you. But I’m not! I’m short and wry, and I read too much Dorothy Parker when I was 12 to ever have a normal outlook on life.
I’m Jewish, which is like being Greek, I imagine, since most of what I know about being Greek comes from reading David and Amy Sedaris, and they are Brothers Of Another Mother to us Jews.
I live in Brooklyn Heights, one of only a few select city neighborhoods ruled entirely by baby carriages. It is a perfect environment to raise children: there’s a kids’ gym and a kids’ spa and a toy store and a fancy cupcake place and a farmer’s market and right across the river there’s Manhattan, where the beautiful people live.
As you can tell, I’m wordy, like you, and over-educated, but I am made almost entirely of cleavage, so I was also designed to be maternal. My husband’s nice too! He’s a big fan. If he could have sex with you once, even with lights off and most clothes on, that would make him really happy.
The bottom line is, the world needs more of you, Tina. I know you’re doing all you can — the show, the movies, the upcoming book — but you’re only one person, after all. You have limitations. Maybe if I expose our babies to radiation they’ll have no limitations, like superheros!
Take your time. I’ll be fertile for a while yet (I think).
Many of the points raised in both forums were interesting (avatars vs. our real life selves), timely (Watson vs. Ken Jennings), and significant (the people of the Middle East vs. their dictators). But to me, it was all so much background noise, because my decision was made a long time ago. The Internet delivered me — absolutely, over and over again, beyond question.
The Internet gave me Mr. Ben.
We did not meet over the Internet, not per se. The first time I remember seeing him, my freshman year of college, was on a Septa train platform. His dark hair stood out against colorful clothes and he had a camera slung around his neck. We were both going to Philly, so we chatted for a bit, though as he was going to see about a girl there, it was not romantic. Still, since I always got a bit swoony over the idea of meeting some dashing stranger on public transportation, my heart beat a little faster.
(Why public transportation? I can only assume that because my adolescence was so proscribed — for 13 years at the same school, I saw the same Jewish faces get a little bonier, a little hairier, a bit more pimply, but never change in fundamentals — the Metro was basically the only time I was guaranteed a glimpse of something new.)
Mr. Ben does not remember meeting me on that train. He does remember the next two times we ran into each other, casually, on campus; neither encounter amounted to anything. Then a friend told me that Mr. Ben kept a blog.
Naturally, at the time, it wasn’t called a “blog” really so much as a “web journal,” and it was a pretty rare thing to have. I was impressed. When I started reading, I was more impressed, because the boy could not only take pictures and wear vivid colors, he could express himself in words, and words are the Most Important Thing to me.
On Valentines Day, he wrote that he offered a girl a rose, and she declined. He was very straightforward about it, not at all maudlin or self-pitying, but, for all that, sad. He used the phrase, “a requited love interest.” I knew exactly what he meant.
How awful! I thought. Who turns down a rose? My friend K. Ross was in my dorm room with me when I read the entry, and ranting to him only made me more incensed. Before I knew what I had done, I had posted in his guestbook expressing my sympathy & outrage, and saying, “Don’t worry — I’ll be your requited love interest.”
Dear reader, this was BC — Before Comments. There were no comments, there was only a guestbook, and I opened myself in it for the world to see. Once I had done so, there was no turning back. K. Ross gave me an uncertain look, because I am not usually so bold, but it was too late.
Mr. Ben replied by email, and we corresponded — commiserated — for a couple of days. Then, that Saturday evening, he invited me over. No fool, I. Several unfortunate encounters with boys over the course of that year had taught me to be wary of such invitations. Yet something about this particular boy compelled me to go.
That was exactly ten years ago, today.
When I say the Internet delivered me, I don’t mean I have succeeded in the game of Life because now I have the blue peg beside me in the car and I’m all set to stock up the back seat with little pegs. Fuck the blug peg, and fuck the little pegs in the backseat too, for that matter. That, to me, is not success.
The Internet delivered me because, in helping me not meet but really connect with Mr. Ben, it gave me someone who would watch my back, lift my spirits, make me laugh, be there for me when my dog died followed by all the men in my family, one by one, and just generally make me a better person, a cleaner, saner, happier, honest, less sarcastic and more vulnerable person.
He also brought me to New York, where I wouldn’t have had the courage to come on my own, and I am as enamored of this city as I could have ever hoped to be.
Happy anniversary, baby. I thank the Internet for you.