I met my ex-husband at Wolfson Tax Associates a week before my taxes were due. WTA (as they liked to call themselves) was renovating its office in the Ansonia and I walked through a warren of empty beige-and-white offices until I found him behind a scratched-up wooden desk, a relic about to be consigned to the trash heap. The walls were bare and yellow as egg yolk and the office smelled of fresh paint and coffee.
His name was Murray Prine. Truth to tell, he was a bad apple from the moment I picked him, bald head gleaming like a ripe MacIntosh. Something about that badness (I almost wrote baldness) drew me, though, as irresistibly as the apple drew Eve. My tax forms were laid out neatly before him; the only other objects on his desk were two silver-framed photographs, each of a beautiful blonde toddler, and a plush-velvet brown lion with a mane and tail of gold-colored yarn. The lion was a foot tall and wore a white sweater with a blue Jewish star knitted into the wool like a varsity letter.
Murray Prine was well-organized and my taxes were simple. Since there was little work to do, we spent the hour’s consultation I’d paid for in advance drinking coffee and talking. Murray’s voice veered toward a British accent (he’d spent a Fulbright year at the London School of Economics three decades before) and he resembled (slightly) the actor Michael Caine if Caine were bald and 5’7”. I knew instantly that Murray Prine was a bad boy posing as a tax accountant. The promise of mischief and sex behind his horn-rimmed glasses was as potent to me as the challenge of the bespectacled librarian, her hair in a prim bun, to men of a certain ilk.
Was I a woman of that same ilk, or the librarian incarnate? I often wore my auburn hair pinned up with a tortoise-shell comb. My rectangular black-rimmed glasses, which magnified my hazel eyes, were striking in a way that wasn’t yet fashionable. At 36, I still had no idea what kind of woman I really was.
That’s why, in the story, I reinvented myself as 16 instead of 36. I doubted readers would accept a mature woman so impressionable and foolish. For the same reason, I made the fictional baby’s father not 50-year-old Murray Prine, with his put-on English accent and polished nails, but a 19-year-old athlete I called Rafi, who had tousled black curls above long-lashed upward-slanting gray eyes.
For my opening scene, instead of WTA, I chose a synagogue on West 86th Street, one-half mile uptown from the Ansonia. The occasion was Rafi’s cousin’s Bat Mitzvah. The 16-year old girl, my other self, whom I named Lenore, was a regular congregant, looking for something she could not yet name. She left the service during the first aliyah, perhaps to use the ladies’ room. Rafi left, too. As the sanctuary doors swung closed, their eyes met.
The Rabbi’s study, like Murray Prine’s office, was a freshly-painted bright-yellow, a cheerful and comforting place, the door always unlocked. Even after Rafi closed the door they could hear the Torah service on the loudspeaker over the Rabbi’s desk. In Hebrew, Rafi’s cousin chanted from Lech Lecha, “The Lord appeared to Abram and said to him, ‘I am El Shaddai. Walk in My ways and be blameless.”
The girl stood with her back against the closed door and Rafi put his hands on her shoulders and kissed her. The chanting continued, “And you shall no longer be Abram, but shall be called Abraham, for I shall make you the father of a multitude of nations.” In the Rabbis’ study, time seemed to stop so that neither Rafi nor Lenore could say how long they kissed, or how much of Lech Lecha the cousin actually read.
The Rabbi’s Torah discussion, in English, described not only Abram’s name being changed to Abraham, but his wife Sarai’s to Sarah; Jacob’s to Israel; and Hosea’s to Joshua.
“What was the significance of these name changes?” asked the Rabbi, while Rafi tenderly removed Lenore’s navy plaid skirt and periwinkle blue crew-neck sweater, her silky white blouse, bra, and underpants. Her discarded shoes — navy blue pumps with an ankle strap — disappeared under the Rabbi’s desk.
“In each case,” said the Rabbi, answering his own question, “the change signifies a change in character or status. Their new names signal their transformation from ordinary people into larger-than-life figures, whose stories embody the spiritual growth of our people.”
Lenore did not resist Rafi. Instead, as he pronounced her “perfect,” Judah Ben-Ari was conceived.
Murray and I married even before my federal refund came through. Our son Jody (named after the boy in Marjorie Rawling’s The Yearling) was born eight months later.
Lenore and Rafi saw each other only twice after that fateful Shabbat morning, parting ways after a mere three weeks. In the meantime, Lenore started calling herself Lennie, an act of rebellion against the author for her poor taste in men and especially the author’s own namby-pamby name, Nancy Beth. Three months later, she learned, first from Rafi’s cousin, and eventually from Rafi himself, that he was working on a kibbutz in Israel.
In much the same way, the older but not wiser Nancy Beth learned, three years after she married him, that Murray Prine, husband of many wives and lives, was stepping out on her.
In the story, 16-year-old Lennie dealt with her bad news by retreating into a stubborn silence and refusing her parents’ demands that she have an abortion, stay in school, and avoid wrecking her life. This was not that different from Nancy Beth who, approaching 40 with a 3 year-old, was warned by her mother that if she threw Murray out, she would be alone “for a very, very, very long time.”
I should add that the cramped studio apartment on the Upper West Side where Lennie lived with Judah Ben-Ari, with its lumpy orange corduroy sofa bed, two-burner stove, and mini-refrigerator, was considerably smaller and bleaker than, although modeled after, the “junior four” apartment where I raised my son Jody. I too had (and have) a worn sofa bed and a window overlooking a noisy street. Sirens screamed through each baby’s nap, the real and the fictional. There were other similarities. Both boys, the blue-eyed child of wandering Murray Prine (soon to wed his fourth wife) and the precious little “mamzer” of Lennie and the absent Rafi, were in day care after a few months so both mothers could earn a living, I as a lawyer and Lennie as a receptionist at a law firm.
It wasn’t until the boys turned four that the predictable arc of their lives changed. Suddenly Judah Ben-Ari (whose first name, according to Jacob’s benediction in Parshat Vayechi, signifies “lion’s whelp” and whose middle name means “son of lion”) was always in trouble — in the sandbox, the playground, the nursery school, the sidewalk, everywhere. He wouldn’t listen, wouldn’t line up or hang his jacket on a hook, wouldn’t be quiet. The list of Judah Ben-Ari’s failings was endless — like the list of sins on Yom Kippur, thought Lennie despairingly. He broke the teachers’ eyeglasses, he lied, he stole toys from school. Twice he placed his hands around another boy’s neck, fulfilling the Biblical patriarch Jacob’s prophecy that Judah’s hands “would be on the nape of his foes” and leading his teacher to question, to Lennie’s mortification, whether Judah Ben-Ari witnessed acts of violence at home.
Jody, as you might have guessed, did all of these things, too, when he was four, at the Abraham Joshua Heschel School on West 89th Street in New York City.
Faced with the other parents’ rejection and the respective schools’ threats of expulsion, both mothers felt isolated and angry. I tried to make the troubles of Lennie and little Judah Ben-Ari harder to bear than my own. Murray Prine, for all his faults, saw Jody regularly, since he considered every child proof of his virility; and my parents spent one day a week with my rebellious little boy. Lennie, who was estranged from her parents, suffered all her trials alone, including a difficult on-and-off relationship with a young would-be actor called Joseph Brothers (not his real name), who worked in the law firm’s mailroom. Moreover, while the guidance counselor at the Abraham Joshua Heschel School said, “Jody’s not a bad boy, really,” and recommended that he see a psychologist, Judah Ben-Ari’s nursery school had no professional staff.
At the climax of the story, the principal of Judah Ben-Ari’s nursery school called Lennie at home to say her son was being expelled. When Lennie hung up she screamed at Judah Ben-Ari that she wished he’d never been born.
Because Judah Ben-Ari was as smart as he was defiant, he responded primly, quietly: “You have no right to yell at me that way, Mommy.”
“No right?” For a moment, Lennie pictured Rafi, eyes shaded by a blue cap, picking grapes or peaches on a kibbutz in Israel. And then:
“She grabbed Judah Ben-Ari and shook him with all her might, flinging him down on the orange corduroy sofa (which she had opened earlier to make a bed for him). She retreated to the furthest away corner of their room, near the window, her eyes blinded with tears. The makeshift bed was covered with a thick comforter and she knew she hadn’t really hurt him.”
(That’s the part from the story.)
“The makeshift bed was covered with a thick comforter and she knew she hadn’t really hurt him.” I revised that line numerous times in my effort to tell Lennie’s story. I deleted it and then put it back in, all the time worrying which direction the story would take after the young unwed mother, practically a child herself, reached her breaking point.
Would she crack and seriously hurt her child?
Throw him on the floor?
In the story Judah Ben-Ari’s fall was buffered by a soft comforter on the worn-out sofa-bed.
Was I honest when I wrote that line, or simply comforting myself?
During the year when Jody was four, everyone (from Murray to my parents to the school authorities) told me I was doing a miserable job raising him. “You let him get away with murder.” That made me madder than ever. Was Lennie’s story written to reassure me that during the moments that year when I was undeniably cruel — through hateful words or my fingers digging into his shoulder or my hand pushing him away (shoving him away?) — I hadn’t really hurt him?
Lennie’s story continued:
“The shock had gotten to Judah Ben-Ari. He wept inconsolably.
“ ‘Please, Mommy,’ he entreated. ‘I’ll be better. H-help me be better!’” His voice rose in hysteria.
“He continued to cry, begging her to come to him. She clung to the window sill as if to a life raft.
“Only after he cried himself to sleep, did she come. She covered his thin shoulders with the comforter. She looked at his pink eyelids and round cheeks and open mouth. How could she have let him cry like that? She vowed never to do it again.”
Lennie’s story ended with a coda in which she realized that the invitation in Lech Lecha to “walk in God’s ways and be blameless” applied not to her or anyone else she knew, but only to Judah Ben-Ari. His misdeeds, however castigated by others, came from a pure and innocent heart.
In one respect, I think Lennie had things easier than I during the year her son was four. Since she screwed up so early in life, she forgave herself much sooner, and was able to go on without having to turn everything into a story.
Nancy Ludmerer’s fiction and essays have appeared in Green Mountains Review, Kenyon Review, North American Review, Cimarron Review, Sou’wester, and Masters Review’s “New Voices” Series, among others.