- The Fathoms
Underwater, I opened my eyes. Bubbles moved like abacus beads across the hairs between my legs.
“You stay down there longer than the other women,” said Penina Sussman, who was watching me from the tile when I emerged. She held out a towel.
“Don’t talk,” said her mother, who was sitting in a gray folding chair farther from the Jacuzzi-sized pool. Mrs. Sussman owned the mikvah and was also my attendant, although recently Penina, a shiny-faced teenager, had been doing most of the actual attending.
“It’s warm,” I said to Penina. I dried the hairs between my legs first with a slight plié. “Someday you’ll see.”
Her eyes flitted at me blankly. “Hopefully someday soon,” she said.
I had known the Sussmans for the length of my marriage—almost two years—and Penina was changing. There were breasts underneath that turtleneck.
“May we not see you for nine months, Marisa,” Mrs. Sussman said. She was leaned over in her chair, circling a patch of red skin on the knob of her ankle with a fingernail.
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It was the same insinuating farewell every month and yet I had no idea how to respond; Mrs. Sussman didn’t want to know that I was on the pill and I didn’t want to tell her. I suppose that she might have known all along—she could predict almost perfectly on which nights I would show up, and what else but pharmaceutical intervention could explain my constancy?—but I believed that I needed at least to affect a desire to get pregnant in order to [End Page 108] be allowed to come to her mikvah, which was small, word-of-mouth only. Amit and I wanted children, but not until he was out of school and I could quit my job.
“Should’ve happened by now, shouldn’t it?” I asked.
Penina led me down the hall to the dressing room. Alone, I squeezed my wet curls with the towel. My outfit was waiting for me there on the Sussmans’ fraying damask chair: Chantilly lace bra and underwear, cashmere top, wool stockings, herringbone skirt—all cold on my skin when I put them on. As a matter of personal ceremony I restored the gold wedding band to my finger last.
When I came back out, Penina held the front door open for me onto the basement-level stairwell outside.
“Maybe this really will be the month,” she whispered. She was trying to reassure me, and the earnestness of her effort made me feel, briefly, sad and exposed. But I kept my face placid. As I walked past her I tried to discern from her last look whether my performance had come off or not.
Someone who didn’t know better might have thought Penina and I were the same type of religious—I had taken to dressing modestly, covering up my knees and elbows and clavicles. But I tried to do so stylishly, unlike Penina, who wore permanently out-of-season long jean skirts and must have brushed out her long brown curls into a triangle of frizz rather than manage them, as I did. Never brush a curl, I might have told her, if she and every other young, mincingly Orthodox girl like her did not give me the heebie-jeebies with their blank expressions. Their male counterparts were normal and well socialized—Penina’s brothers, for instance, were gregarious and loud when I ran into them around the city—but the girls were socially impenetrable, almost autistic in manner except for the occasional burst of mis-directed sweetness. And I never just ran into them anywhere.
Outside, my hair started to freeze. When it got this cold I usually dried it before leaving, but in order not to end up looking like Penina I needed my diffuser and hadn’t thought to put it in my purse that morning; it was the beginning of November in Washington, DC—too early to anticipate cold like this.
I saw the woman with the pink leather purse almost as soon as I was...