Easter at the Jewish Ritual Bath, 1962
Sima had only been to the mikvah once before. Two days before her wedding she’d rung with a trembling hand the yellowed bell, immersed herself in water to enter the marriage clean, purified. She had been raised to be traditional but not overly observant: She lit the candles on Friday night and bought the challah fresh, but did not bake the bread herself and, though she meant to in the beginning, never found the time again for the ritual of immersion. Five years later and everyone starting to ask where were the children, a slight sniff in their voice like animals sensing trouble, blood, she returned to the mikvah — a sort of goodbye.
An old woman, a paisley kerchief covering what remained of her hair, opened the door, led her inside. It smelled of damp and sourness; a blue-striped towel Sima remembered from five years before was still dangling from the ceiling, half protecting a torn pipe. The walls were the green of hospitals and elementary schools; the floor a white tile faded gray round the edges. It seemed impossible that such things should stay the same when so much for Sima had changed: her own body betraying her, parts of it stolen by surgeons; her mother dying quickly and without ever telling her, “You were loved.”
The woman pointed toward a small room with a few lockers and some wooden benches. She spoke with an Eastern European accent, “Undress there, yes?” Sima nodded, entered the room.
Sima hadn’t intended, when she awoke that morning, to come to the mikvah. It was in line at the butcher that the sight of a yellow-haired child hiding behind her mother’s leg had made the envy rise up in Sima’s throat so that she felt herself choking, her neck twisting like those of the torn, plucked birds behind the glass counter.
“I can see you,” Sima had joked to the hidden child. The girl, a look of fear on her face that Sima remembered from her own childhood when strange, smiling women would lean toward her to twist cheeks, burst into tears.
“I’m so sorry,” Sima said to the mother who, pleased to be needed, bent down, whispered into the child’s ear something that made her laugh, “I didn’t mean to upset her.”
“What’s to be sorry for?” the mother said, “You know how it is.”
Sima found herself saying, yes, of course she knew, her own child after all — so that she missed the butcher calling her number.
She passed the mikvah on the drive home; circled the block once and parked, leaving the meat on the front seat. Maybe if she’d gone regularly, she thought, after each period as prescribed, things would be different. At the very least she’d go now. Close up shop, she told herself, not smiling at her own dark humor.
Sima removed her clothing slowly, folding it in a neat pile on the narrow bench. She walked naked over to the sink, surveyed the various toiletries scattered beside it: a half-empty tube of toothpaste, perfectly rolled from the bottom-up; a tooth-shaped dental floss dispenser; one box of q-tips, slightly worn from water around the blue cardboard edges; a plastic cup filled with cotton balls; a pink bottle of nail polish remover; a dozen or so plastic-sealed toothbrushes gathered into a loose pile. Sima brushed her teeth, cleaned her ears, and scraped with one nail the dirt from the others — not caring about the cold that blew in from the air duct. After spitting into the sink she splashed it with water, then entered the shower. There was a sliver of green soap, and a bottle of pink shampoo — she worked both into thick lathers before ducking under the water, closing her eyes as it ran hot down her back.
Sima walked dripping into the mikvah room. For once she did not cringe to hide her body as the attendant bent down to inspect her toenails, raised her hair above her shoulder to confirm her earlobes were unadorned. The old woman checked briskly, professionally. Without jewelry, make-up, polish, Sima stepped into the bath.
The water wasn’t as warm as she remembered; Sima shivered slightly, hesitated. She looked up at the old woman for a moment, a tiny woman, shrunken, and, realizing for all their difference in age they were the same — thick inside with the green fur of mold, useless, over — bent into the water.
She immersed herself completely so that not even a strand showed on the surface, once, twice. Arms and legs out, eyes open. Rising, she recited the blessing that praised God for the commandment of immersion. Without pausing she recited the prayer she’d spoken as a bride: “Blessed are you, Lord our God, Ruler of the Universe, who kept us alive and preserved us and enabled us to reach this season.” As she came to the final words, this season, lazman hazeh, her voice cracked. The tears were warm on her wet face and she bent down once more to blur them into the pool of water, to hide them as she did late at night while Lev slept and she sobbed to her reflection in the bathroom mirror, took some sympathy from the pained face that looked back at her.
“What’s the matter, dear?” the old woman asked when Sima stood again, her voice softer than Sima expected, soothing.
Sima shook her head in response, clenched her eyes shut.
Sima placed a fist to her lips and bit, lightly, for control.
“Next time maybe. Every woman has that loss. How far along was it?”
“Two months,” Sima told her.
“Two months? Yes, it’s hard. Next time my dear. You’re still young.” The woman patted her head, absently, as Sima stepped out.
Sima dried herself carefully in the dressing room. She touched the scar on her abdomen, the purple mass. The woman must have been almost blind not to see it, her check for nail polish and jewelry a sham. Sima felt angry for a moment, wanted to report her. It was a ritual, after all; the attendant needed to be competent — things could happen, women could drown. But no, she was just an old woman in need of work. The children she’d had, at any rate, had left her on her own.
It’d been two months since the surgery. The nurse had told her to massage cocoa butter into the scar to keep the keloid down, but Sima had not bothered. For the first few weeks the scar was just a sharp surgical line, cutting from her belly button to her pubis — another red line, pointing. As it thickened and deepened in color its drama seemed to justify her sadness.
She wanted the physical scar as a symbol of her loss.
“You don’t need it now,” the doctor had told her, “and with childless women there are all sorts of problems, cancer the worst of it, of course. Since you’re infertile anyway, I’d feel more comfortable just taking the whole thing out. And these days a hysterectomy is really a very simple procedure.”
The word, infertile, still tore at her a full year after the diagnosis, but she had simply nodded, signed the right forms. Lev ventured once, before her surgery, to ask if she was sure about it. “Of course I’m sure,” Sima told him, unwilling to admit fear for worry it would stop her.
Lev did not press further.
Of course, she thought, he wouldn’t.
Two days after the surgery Lev wheeled her out of the hospital. The wheelchair was difficult to maneuver and Sima felt herself coming dangerously close to walls and corners at every turn. “Lev! Watch it!” she’d cried, surprised at how damaged her body felt, how vulnerable. She held her breath in the crowded lobby until, just outside the hospital doors, she was again allowed to stand.
Sima leaned against the windowed entranceway while Lev ran for the car, brought it up beside her. In the front seat was a stuffed animal, a small white bunny with pink eyes, ears, and nose.
Lev nodded. “For you. A gift.”
“It’s Easter-time. They sell these at the drugstore.”
Lev didn’t respond.
Sima rolled down the window, dropped the bunny into the parking lot. Despite herself she had watched it as they pulled away: It lay sideways on the cement, a few whiskers bent toward the sky.
Sima paused on her way out of the mikvah to open her purse, leave some money in the jar by the door. The kerchiefed woman did not close the door after her, and Sima, remembering her own mother, did not say goodbye.
Ilana Stanger-Ross is the author of a novel, Sima’s Undergarments for Women. Formally the Senior Writer for The Art Biz.com, Ilana's interviews with visual artists and art professionals and her articles about the art business are now online at The New York Foundation for the Arts. Her stories have been published in Lilith Magazine, The Red Rock Review, and The Bellevue Review.