They were lying on her bed, naked under a thin sheet, because even on hot nights she needed covering to fall asleep. The windows were open under the blinds, and a few fans were spinning, their whirring blades trying to stir some life into the stale air. The only light came indirectly from the street, along with the occasional wash of a passing car. A pitcher of ice water stood on the bedside table. He refilled a glass, took a short sip, then leaned back against the bedboard, ran a hand through her hair.
“It was an old house,” he said. “Not a dead end, but a pretty quiet part of the neighborhood. Removed from anything major. The street was a hill. This house was close to the top. The spooky house with windows for eyes.”
He looked down at her face. Her eyes were closed. “Are you tired?” he asked.
“Do you want me to stop? Do you need to sleep?”
She opened her eyes, and turned her neck to look at him.
“I asked you to tell me,” she said. “I want to hear about it. I want you to tell me.”
“Just let me know if you need to sleep,” he said. “I don’t want to talk to myself.”
“Don’t worry.” She patted the hand resting on top of her head. “Go on.”
“I followed behind my mother,” he said. “Close. The stairs were steep. They didn’t have a railing. I was so close that I could hear her breathing. I could hear the beads rattling on her necklace. She was limping, because of the trouble in her knee. I was afraid she was going to fall. Maybe I wanted her to fall. But her body was getting so thick, and I was so uncertain in the darkness. I figured she would just knock me over, and we would both go tumbling down and crack our heads against the pavement.
“When we made it to the top, she rested her hand on the screen while she pulled herself together. You never ring at a shiva house. They leave the door open and you just come in. Are you awake?”
“I’m listening,” she said. “I like the sound of your voice. Keep talking.”
“I looked at her face in the light from the door,” he said. “It was different when she didn’t think anyone was watching. It was tired. I wanted to put my hand on her shoulder. But I couldn’t.” He sighed. “She stretched it into a smile when she looked at me. She told me to stay close to her, not to say anything if I didn’t want to. That’s what she said. I can’t do the voice. That’s how she tells stories, actually, with voices. But everyone always sounds the same. Every clerk she ever tangled with calls her ‘madam,’ and speaks in a terrible British accent.”
She giggled in the darkness, and he tickled her softly across the cheek.
“It was sad, really,” he said. “She took her hand off the screen, and tried to rest it on my arm. But I brushed it off. She let out one of her long sighs and said ‘You know I love you, right?’ I remember that exactly, because of how it made me feel. Not good.”
“Where you angry?” she asked.
“Why did she put you in that situation?”
“Bring me to the house?”
“I don’t think she had a choice. She was alone. She was looking after me. Nowhere else for me to be at night. It was her good friend’s father who died, and she wanted to make a shiva call. She didn’t think she could leave me alone, the way I was.”
“Did anyone know?”
“I don’t think so. Not really the place to tell. We decided I would keep it to myself. However possible. The first one we saw was Bob. The husband.”
He stopped, and took a sip of water. All of the ice in the pitcher had melted. He ran his moist fingers over her forehead.
“That’s nice,” she murmured. “Bob.”
“A horse’s ass,” he said. “Bob. Put on this earth to be, I don’t know, somebody’s old army buddy. A tall guy. Almost bald. His dome gleaming in the hall light. It looked like he had a tan, even in early spring. I think he was sorting the mail when we came in, on a table in a nook by the staircase. His voice I can do. Booming. Enthusiastic. He kept checking it, though, like his brain was flashing him signals that the mood was supposed to be somber. He turned around when he heard us come in, with his sly, gap-toothed smile said ‘Well, well! Glad you could make it!’ He hugged my mother. He didn’t shake my hand. The sleeves of my sweater were bunched up in my fists, that’s how I was going to manage it. My mother said something about the mitzvah, how important it was to comfort the mourner. He laughed at her. He was pretty crass. ‘You and your mitzvahs! You’re always after the mitzvahs! A good little girl scout.’ She thought she had to play along. She gave him the salute. Scout’s honor. Then he turned on me. ‘I didn’t see you at the cemetery! You only come for the food?'”
“You remember this part pretty well,” she said.
“It’s funny how you remember,” he said. “I remember everything he said to me, because of what I didn’t say to him. Because I couldn’t tell him where I had been when they were burying his wife’s father. It was burning me, from the stomach to the tip of my tongue. The whole time. That’s why I can remember almost everything he said.”
“Where were you?” she asked.
“I was at the day center.” He laughed sharply. “I was sitting on a dingy sofa, playing rummy and watching the soaps, under close medical supervision. It was in the hospital where my mother worked. Where she left me when there was nowhere else for me to be. She didn’t think I was up for the funeral, and she was probably right. But I couldn’t say, ‘You dumb fuck, I was playing cards with a male nurse in psychopath kindergarten.’ I tried to avoid his stare. But he just changed tactics. ‘What are you doing here, anyhow? Home for the holidays?’ She tried to shield me. She said she loved Passover, because it meant her boy came home from college. He shot right back, like they were battling for my soul. ‘Passover’s not till next week. You cutting?’ I looked at him. I said, ‘You could say that.'”
She opened her eyes. “You said that?”
“I used to speak in innuendo,” he said. “It gave me the power of my secret. But my mother was getting nervous, as much about what I would do as him. She tried to draw him off the scent. She asked about Sandra. That was her name. How she was doing. He had an unimpeachable expression of sorrow. He was very sensitive to her condition. ‘Well, you know, it’s very hard. A lot to deal with. A lot. But she’s a trooper.’ He said she was a ‘great kid.’ I had to get away.”
He paused, waiting for a question, but she was quiet, breathing regularly, slow and deep, and he was upset for a moment. But then she opened her eyes again, and looked at him quizzically.
“I’m not sleeping,” she said. She tugged at his arm until he slid his back down along the bedboard and rested his head on the pillow beside hers, touching lightly, his hand in hers, she playing gently with his fingers.
“Where did you go?” she asked.
“To the bathroom. There was a bathroom back behind the kitchen. The laundry room. The toilet hedged into the corner by a washer and dryer. Bob didn’t let me go easily. He stuck out his palm and said I had to pay him a nickel. And my mother was concerned, me going off to the bathroom by myself. But she couldn’t say anything in front of Bob. She couldn’t make a scene. So she just told me to join them in the living room. Soon.
“I remember a black and white cat in the kitchen, scattering dry food across the floor. I crunched some of it under my shoes. And all the plastic containers. For the cakes and cookies and fruit laid out on the dining room table. Coffee and tea. Sugar and cream. White plastic cups with handles, stacked in piles. Nobody in the kitchen, but I heard voices in the other room. Low and soothing. The mirror in the bathroom was covered with black cloth. You know about that, right? I don’t know what you were raised with.”
“Not much,” she said, “and some of it’s different.”
“They cover the mirrors in a mourner’s house. There was a small sink beneath it. Old-fashioned. Separate taps for hot and cold. I rolled up my sleeves and ran my hands under the cold water. Letting it fall down the sides of my hands and through my fingers.”
He sucked in his breath.
“The scabs were gone. The cuts were still red. A little puffy. Especially the big one.”
In the silence, he matched his breath to the rise and fall of hers. She pulled his left hand across her breasts, over the sheet, and began to stroke softly with her index finger up and down the diagonal scar that ran the length of his wrist. They breathed together in the darkness. Once or twice she started to speak and stopped, the sound rising and falling in her throat. Then she asked it all at once, quickly, like it had been weighing on her for a long time.
“What was it like to commit suicide?”
He laughed. “Commit?” he said. “I have a pulse.”
“Attempt. I mean attempt.”
He thought about it. “What was it like,” he said. “What was it like. For me.” He waited for the words to form. “It was like clarity,” he said. “But it wasn’t. I thought I was piercing through the veils. But I was just wrapping one veil after another around my eyes. Until I couldn’t tell the night from the day. It was a low ache, all the time. Not getting any stronger, just bigger and bigger, until I couldn’t think of anything else. I couldn’t get away. Then it occurred to me, a way to escape. At first the thought was enough. I didn’t need anything else. The freedom was so sweet that I wanted to shout. I want to taste everything, smell everything. Because life was beautiful. Then it passed, the ache again. The same trick didn’t work two times in a row. I had to wait. It was like coming.”
He waited for the laugh, but was glad not to hear it.
“Then it didn’t work at all anymore and I had to take the next step. I bought the razor blades at a drugstore around the corner from my dorm. Then I was the walking dead. I skipped class. I couldn’t taste my food. Nobody made sense. It was only a matter of time. I started experimenting. Passing the blade over my wrist to leave a little scratch on the skin. Then a few beads of blood. I had to go slowly, because my body was an animal. Even as it got weaker. I didn’t think about oblivion or hell. Nothing like that. But my body was fierce and proud and crazy with fear. My body didn’t want to die. My mind was the executioner. My thoughts. My body was the beast and my mind was the slaughterer. And they were both me.
“I was sitting on the bathroom tiles, my back against the wall. I was trying to dream myself away, so when I cut it would be nothing cutting the veins of nothing. I made the deeper slashes across the tops on both sides. Then I started repeating the same word over and over again in my head. Now. Now. Now. So I would believe there was no tomorrow. And I just cut. I dug it in and tore across. It started to flow.”
She wasn’t stroking him anymore. She had taken his hand into hers, their three hands clasped against her chest.
“And when I saw the blood,” he said, “I started to scream. Because I didn’t want to die.”
They listened to the droning of the fans. He sat up and slid his hand away from her.
“You want some water?” he asked.
“Thanks,” she said. She sat up beside him, leaning against the bedboard while he poured water from the pitcher into the glass, and handed it to her. She drank and gave it back to him, and he refilled it, gulped it down, and put it back on the table. She lay her head against his shoulder. There were voices in the street, calling back and forth to each other. After a while, he spoke again.
“She didn’t let me stay in there very long. All of a sudden, a knock on the door. I flushed the toilet, even though I hadn’t used it. I shut the tap. When I opened the door, she asked if I was all right. I said she didn’t need to check up on me. She said it wasn’t that, though I bet it was. She said the rabbi was here. They needed a minyan, so Sandra could say kaddish. You know what a minyan is?”
“It’s ten men for prayers,” she said.
“Right. But they count women where I come from, too. You just have to be old enough, over bar mitzvah.” He paused. “It’s funny. It makes me sound like my mother. Saying all these words. Minyan, Kaddish, Mitzvah. Tuches.”
“You know what a tuches is?” he asked.
“You can show me,” she said.
He twisted around quickly and pulled her down to the bed, where he held her, spanking her loudly on the bottom. She screamed, and grabbed between his legs in retaliation, holding him in a grip somewhere between a caress and the threat of a squeeze. She stared him down, their faces parallel along the horizon of the mattress. “Go on,” she said.
His voice was thick. “I lost my train of thought.”
“The rabbi,” she told him.
“You want me to talk about the rabbi? With my balls in your hand?”
She let him go.
“I’m willing to try,” he said. “I’ll make the sacrifice.”
She rolled him over on his back, and rested her head in the crook of his shoulder. “Go on,” she said.
“If you really want me to.”
“I do,” she said.
“I thought it was going to be the old rabbi,” he said, “from growing up. But it wasn’t. It was a younger guy. He must have been new, since I left for school. Do you know what Howdy Doody looks like?”
“No,” she said, “Who’s Howdy Doody?”
“I think it’s a puppet,” he said. “I don’t know what he looks like either. But I’ve seen people that other people say look like Howdy Doody. Boyish, I guess. Freckles. Spindly. The rabbi looked like that. He was really young. I had never seen a rabbi so young. His hair was trim around his head, like a camp haircut. Under his little knit yarmulke. Short and neat. He looked innocent. That’s how he sounded too. He was talking to Sandra when we came in. He was probably stalling for the minyan.”
“What did Sandra look like,” she asked. “Was she pretty?”
“She was my mother’s age,” he said.
“That doesn’t matter.”
“It does,” he protested.
“Something must have drawn you to her.”
“I don’t know,” he said. “I guess she was pretty, in a way. Her face was very sharp, like it was chiseled. But even sharper, because it looked like all the muscles were contracted. Very tense. She had short hair. Gray, with a little black left. It was kind of spiky. It must have been the eyes. She had beautiful eyes.”
“Do you remember what the rabbi was saying?” she asked.
“I do,” he said. “Sandra was standing in front of him. They were both looking down at the coffee table. It was covered with photographs, and relics. The candle that they burn during shiva. It was a shrine. Pictures of her father from his whole life. Young man, old man, middle-aged in plaid shorts, with his wife at the Grand Canyon. And textbooks, school textbooks. I didn’t know why till I heard what they were saying. He wanted Sandra to talk about her father. He didn’t know her father. Asking naïve questions, what did he do? He was a teacher at the community college. Her voice was so strange, strangled. History and social studies. ‘Wonderful. Such important work.’ ‘These are Dad’s textbooks.’ ‘You mean he wrote them himself?’ Wide-eyed amazement. A child rabbi. ‘Yes, he was a great student of history. His passion was the Jewish people on the timeline of world history, putting us on the map, the contribution.’ ‘Wonderful that he had such a love for yiddishkeit. The Jewish tradition.’ That’s what the rabbi said. I don’t think he was listening to her. He was just doing his job.”
“Why is that naïve?” she asked.
“The whole thing was naive, I thought then. For instance, she was wearing a strip of cloth, a little black ribbon tucked into the buttonhole of her sweater and hanging down. It was for kriyah. The sign of mourning. Tearing. Because when you hear the news, the death, you’re supposed to make a tear in your clothing, because a long time ago they got so upset they ripped open their robes. Then it became what you had to do. Now it’s just a little black ribbon, like you won first prize at a fair in hell. And the rabbi asked her the standard sensitive questions. He did it by the book. He actually said, ‘You must miss him a lot.’ On the day of the fucking funeral. And her face was so tight. And the eyes, I thought, somewhere behind the eyes is the wild heart. Where is it? Why can’t she let it out?”
“Do you think she wanted to?” she asked. “Right there and then?”
“I wanted her to,” he said. His voice was louder than he meant it to be. “That’s what I wanted. I wanted it all out.”
His arms were limp at his sides. She turned her arm at the elbow and reached up to stroke his cheek, and up along his forehead. She smoothed back his hair, and then slid her hand down to shut his eyes. He looked into the darkness. On the other side of the darkness he felt the palm of her hand.
“Is that why you did it?” she asked.
“Yes,” he said. “I think I got the idea right away. But it took a while. I had to work myself up. More people came. The rabbi stopped talking. They did ma’ariv, the evening prayer. I was sitting next to Sandra’s mother, who had Alzheimer’s. She thought I was someone who was probably already dead. Sandra got up to say kaddish. It was when my mother took me over to say goodbye.”
“You really slapped her?” she asked.
“I did,” he said. “I slapped her across the face. Pretty hard.”
“I don’t believe it.”
“It’s true,” he said. “All true. The god’s honest.”
“What did they do?”
“I don’t remember all of it. My mother rushed me into the kitchen. She got a friend to sit with me, a guy with a white beard. He looked like an old owl. He was nice. Probably a doctor. He tried to calm me down. We talked about baseball. I heard her talking to Bob in the hallway. Her voice was quick and sharp, trying to explain. He was shouting. I heard him. ‘Well, what’s he doing in my house? Why did you bring him?’ She called the psychiatrist, I got an injection, back to the hospital. It was a mess.”
“What about Sandra?”
He rolled over on his side, and looked at her, leaning on his elbow.
“I felt terrible,” he said. “In the moment it was right. Then I woke up the next morning, or the morning after that, and I thought about it. I slapped a woman across the face on the day she buried her father, in front of her friends and family. The rabbi.”
“Have you ever seen her since?” she asked.
“I did,” he sighed. “She came to see me in the hospital. It had been a few weeks, maybe a month. Group therapy. Art therapy. Psychiatrist. The chaplain, even. She had permission to take me out, and we went to lunch. I was nervous. But right away she said, ‘I’m sorry you’re in so much pain. I can imagine what it’s like.’ Not much more than that. What had I been studying at school. Did I want to go back. It was just the visit. It was a relief. She didn’t want me to hate myself.”
He smiled. “We went to the park, before I had to go back. She had a bag of breadcrumbs and we fed the pigeons. She said she knew it was quaint, but she loved to do it. I was smoking one cigarette after another. She told me I should quit. It would make me sick. It was the only pleasure on the unit, but I haven’t smoked one since. And I started to feel good.”
“It had been a while,” she said.
“It had,” he said. “And you know what it felt like?”
“It felt like madness. Not crazy, like I had been. Divine madness. Like I was so tall I had to break open the ceiling to stand up straight. You see everyone stuck in little glass boxes so you smash your fist through the windowpane. You bleed, but the world gets bigger.”
“Why don’t you just open the window?” she asked.
He took her in his arms, pressing himself against her body, and he whispered into her ear, “I hadn’t figured that one out yet.”