No Getting Out

 

by

 

Julie Phelan

 

Stepping out of the shower, Esther lifted the veil of steam from the mirror and looked at the familiar, muddy yellow bruises that covered her arms. Averting her eyes, she wished she could put off going back to work for just one more day. Returning to the bedroom, she chose an embroidered cotton tunic that buttoned at the wrists, a black velvet flounce skirt that hit mid-calf and covered her hair with a plain black snood. As always she adopted the ways of tznius with her modesty only masked how wretched she really felt; every Amidah blessing during her morning prayers today had been saturated with empty promises. All those wasted years – and for what?

She had been certain her marriage would be a success, certain her doting husband would divide his time between shul and family while she warbled nursery rhymes and crocheted color-coded kippot for their fine sons. Eight years later with neither fine sons nor doting husband she had had to hide the shame of her marriage battlefield. Her tentative hypothetical question to Rav Ramon had received the automated response, ‘Everyone one knows Jewish men don’t beat their wives.’

‘But Rabbi,’ Esther had pressed, ‘what if they did?’

‘Civil divorce is not enough. She must have a religious divorce, a get. Without it she can never remarry. She is an agunah –chained to him.’ Rav Ramon had looked at her stricken face and sighed, ‘Esther, just go home and in the name of shalom bayit, make amends.’

Esther had gone home but had not made amends. Instead, in the name of self preservation, she had packed her things. Enough was enough. She used the money her grandmother left to rent an apartment. She had felt cleansed by the sudden waterfall of independence and boldly arranged for divorce papers to be sent to Aaron. A couple of weeks later he confirmed his receipt of them in person. She winced at the memory. She had called in sick, unable to face her colleagues. In an office filled with people from her shul, the atmosphere was already strained. It was as though by leaving him she had been abandoned by the whole community.

Today, like it or not, Esther was back. Her shoulders sagged as she stood at her office door, barely able to see her desk beneath the mass of folders leaning every which way as though ransacked by the LAPD. She slumped into the chair. Shayna bustled in with a cup of steaming coffee, placed it hurriedly on the edge of the desk and was about to flee when Esther stopped her with a sharp, ‘Shayna! Slow down!’

Shayna cheeks developed a deep burgundy hue. She glanced nervously towards the door and breathed,

‘Esther, I wasn’t expecting you back.’

‘Why on earth not?’

‘I don’t know,’ she squirmed. ‘I’m sorry, Esther, truly I am,’ she looked at her watch and took Esther’s stunned silence as her opportunity to escape. Esther hadn’t been expecting streamers and balloons but there were limits. Uneasily, she shook her head as though clearing her thoughts and turned her attention to a thick bundle of phone messages. She leafed through them, hastily passing over one from Midrash Moshe Synagogue to reveal a bigger problem lurking beneath. The chain of sale for an estate on Roscomare Road had broken. She scanned the files over her desk then checked the cabinet. The file was gone. Leaving her desk, she walked quickly to her boss’ office, knocked once and entered.

Reuben’s head jerked up in surprise, his pen poised mid-air. An emerald green yarmulke perched precariously on his curly brown hair and his choice of matching tie would have created a stylish effect but for the fact he had inadvertently been using it to stir his coffee. He eyed her awkwardly and gestured for her to sit.

‘Well, I can’t say I’m not upset.’ He leaned forward onto his elbows.

‘That deal was solid – I’m sure I can fix it.’

‘I’m not talking about Peterson,’ Reuben said, clicking his pen.

‘You’ve lost me.’ A sparrow fluttered in her chest.

‘This realtors is successful because we all respect the same values. People who buy houses need to trust the people selling them - implicitly. I assumed you were frum because you’re married to my best friend.’

‘Well, you assumed correctly.’

‘Oh, you look the part, all right.’

She stared at him blankly.

‘I have quite a list. Like Shabbat?’ his tone was cool. ‘Telephone calls during lighting up time?’

‘That was weeks ago - Dad had just had a heart attack! Mum was confused by UK time difference and….’

‘And now the shame of divorce.’

‘It happens to people all the time.’ Wanna see my list?

‘This is California not New York – there’s no Get Law here. Such situations are disruptive.’

‘What are you saying?’

‘I’m saying we no longer have a position for you here. We’ll pay you to the end of the month of course. Now….’ he gestured expansively over his desk to avoid meeting her eyes.

Words from her very own prayers flashed into her mind: For slanderers let there be no hope. The bastard had blackened her name – but if she defended herself she would start a real pissing contest. What would it achieve? Swallowing her tears, she left his office pausing briefly at Shayna’s desk.

‘Don’t let anyone into my office – I’ll be back Monday for my things. Your support has been much appreciated.’ She collected her bag and walked rigidly from the building.

***

The following morning, Esther roamed her sparsely furnished apartment, duster in hand, feverishly ridding it from specks of dirt. The seriousness of her situation had intensified without either husband or job.

By the evening, she was exhausted and filthy and realized she had only an hour before Shabbat. Her Sabbath rules meant she did not use electricity, drive or cook but she had never resented the restrictions. In fact she had welcomed them. They made the whole day so much more special. She grimaced at the recollection of Reuben’s harsh criticism and felt almost tempted not to bother but found herself setting her timer clocks to control the lamps, jumping into the shower, drying her hair and ensuring she was ready by 5.27pm anyway. Laying her grandmother’s lace cloth over the table, she fetched the precious silver candlesticks. Lighting the candles, she circled them three times with her hands, recited the blessing and opened her heart to the peace that she needed more than ever before.

She was eating potato kugel when she heard a faint click from outside the window. She listened. The house was silent and dark save for the glow of the candles. Click. There it was again. Esther looked quizzically towards the door.

RAP RAP RAP!

She started out of her seat with a gasp, her heart crashing into her ribs.

‘Open the door, Esther!’

Fury surpassed fear. How dare he come today! She strode to the front door and threw it open. With one sweep of his arm, Aaron caught the side of her face and knocked her off her feet to the carpet. She sat, legs apart, stunned and winded by the fall.

‘Cover yourself!’ he spat. Her skirt had bunched beneath her exposing her underpants and he kicked her leg to emphasize the point. She shuffled backwards on her bottom but in two paces he was beside her delivering three hard kicks to her hips. Curling herself into a fetal position, she protected her head with her arms as she felt his large shoes thumping into her sides and back. He leaned over her, pinching the soft skin of her upper arm as he yanked her upwards by her armpit. As though in slow motion, she saw a bead of his perspiration fall onto her sleeve as he lunged at her and struck the left side of her head with the back of his hand. Her skull bounced against the wall and a sudden stream of blood spurted from her temple. She clamped her hand against the wound, as flashes of light appeared in front of her eyes.

‘You listen to me,’ he warned. ‘Summons’ from the Beit Din? Letters from lawyers? You throw shanda on my good name you pay the price. How much do you want to be rid of me? Make me an offer.’

‘That’s blackmail,’ Esther whispered.

Aaron lifted a towel from the laundry basket.

‘You want a get?’ he sneered, ‘Get this.’ He threw the towel at her. Opening the door, he turned, ‘Blessed are you Hashem, for not making me a woman,’ he said pulling the door firmly shut behind him.

***

Esther spent the weekend lurching between exhaustion and rage. By Monday, Esther was stiff and sore but it would be worse to delay collecting her damn possessions. Arriving early, she reasoned, would at least ensure she was alone.

So by 7am, she was standing in the staff room, cup in hand, staring through the steam of the boiling kettle. In frenzied anger she had taken the layered skirt Aaron had once complemented and severed it in half. She had left her hair uncovered and her neckline was dangerously low. At home she had felt a sense of power at her rebellious appearance, but here she felt uncomfortable and exposed as she carried the hot muddy liquid to her office. Photographs of her parents were propped up next to the computer, their smiling faces beaming out at her. She had felt safe here during some of the worst times at home. Her colleagues hadn’t known, but at least she’d had people to talk to and to pass the time of day with. There had been people she could chat to about this and that and forget, if only for a little while, what awaited her at home. She looked sadly around her as she quietly said good-bye. The only sound in the room was the reassuring tick-tick-tick of the wall clock.

The telephone suddenly trilled. With nerves as taut as violin strings her arm instinctively jerked launching the scalding coffee over her ivory shirt. She cursed, feeling the liquid burning into her skin. White-hot needles stabbed into her breasts and in panic she pulled apart the buttons, wrenched her arms out of the sleeves and dropped the blouse to the floor. She grabbed a wad of tissues, mopping the coffee from her chest with one hand, and yanking open the drawer for her old t-shirt with the other. Tears of pain and frustration were welling in her eyes, when she sensed she was no longer alone.

Reuben materialized, slack-jawed in the doorway. Esther’s arms immediately crossed in front of her but his gaze was instead fixed on the patchwork of ugly purple bruises that decorated her torso. She grabbed the t-shirt, pulling it over her head and fighting her arms into the long sleeves. With flushed cheeks she started throwing pens and photographs haphazardly into the open duffle bag on the floor.

‘Would you stop a minute?’ Reuben exclaimed.

‘You should have knocked,’ she stated through clenched teeth.

‘I needed the Coleman file. I didn’t know anyone was here.’

‘Second drawer, filing cabinet.’

‘What?’

‘The Coleman stuff. Second drawer….’

‘Screw Coleman!’

Esther snapped her head up in surprise. Reuben never shouted. He certainly never swore.

‘Esther,’ he said quietly, ‘Please tell me.’

‘What’s to tell? You’ve already convicted me.’

‘That’s why you’re dressed as Supergirl?’

She reddened, ‘It doesn’t take a genius. Work it out.’

***

Esther insisted Reuben leave her to finish and he reluctantly obeyed. She left the office keeping her eyes down and tugging at the hem of her skirt. Instead of looking like some kind of tough street-smart woman, she just felt ridiculous. At home the soft voice of her rebbetzin echoed from her answer machine requesting her to call. Ignoring the Rabbi’s wife, she instead logged onto the internet and searched through jobs and flats in New York, Cincinnatti, anywhere but LA and as far away from Fairfax as she could get.

Days rolled into one another and her answering machine continued to wink as though afflicted by a nervous tic. She slipped into a routine of waking late, scouring the internet, listening to KNX, fixing herself increasingly imaginative cholent then going to bed early and reading until she fell asleep.

Opening the fridge that morning had created a dilemma. She either attempted the daunting trip to the Farmers Market on 3rd Street or she would be facing starvation. She put on a light blue ruffled bohemian skirt, arranged a triangular turquoise scarf around her hair and was about to turn off the radio when the presenter’s words snagged her interest.

You’re listening to KNX1070. Our top story : Orthodox Jewish protesters from the Midrash Moshe Synagogue appeared with placards this morning outside a Financial Consultancy on North Harvard Boulevard – Kim Mariner with the full report at 11.15. This is KNX Newstime with Traffic and Weather together on the 5s. Here’s Jessica Sunday………’

She grabbed her keys and hurried from the flat. If she caught the bus she’d also catch a good view.

The Metro 217 bus was practically empty save for an elderly couple and a dirty young man who exuded the word ‘junkie’ from his very pores. As they traveled along North Harvard the bus joined a queue of traffic and juddered to a crawl. She noticed the elderly woman nudging her husband and pointing towards a knot of people about a hundred yards further up. The LAPD dotted the sidewalk like a cluster of spring bluebells as they chatted amiably to each other. As the bus gradually edged closer, she caught a flash of red on a waving placard. From her vantage point she could have sworn it said ‘Levy.’ She stood up from her seat and read the words ‘Give Her the Get!’ painted on another.

She felt the color drain from her face as she recognized the man holding it aloft. Her eyes darted from one familiar face to another. Some of the women were holding long metal chains. Unable to remain seated, Esther strode quickly to the front of the bus and pleaded with the driver to release her. He sighed ‘This ain’t a stop lady!’ but opened the doors for her anyway.

Dodging cars and ignoring blaring horns she zig-zagged across the street until she was standing open-mouthed in front of Reuben.

‘Am I too late to say sorry?’ His face was grim. ‘The rebbetzin has been trying to phone you since I asked for the shul’s help. Aaron has ignored the third summons from the Beit Din so community action is the next step.’ Reuben inclined his head conspiratorially, ‘Between you and me I think Rav Ramon feels a bit guilty so they’ve kinda pulled out all the stops. There are some who think this gives men a greater sense of power. But…. this might just hit him where it hurts. You know Aaron. He just hates to look bad.’

Esther felt tears prick her eyes.

‘Don’t get soppy on me,’ Reuben warned. He looked her up and down. ‘Since last I saw you, you look a little less....’ He groped for the right word, then with a smile, settled on ‘....chutzpah.’

‘I was angry,’ she said, coloring at the memory. ‘But I took it out on the wrong villain. I just felt so alone.’

‘You’re not now.’ Reuben leaned forward and whispered, ‘When this is all over I hope I may be able to restore your faith in men.’

‘You already have,’ Esther smiled, then added, ‘And I can still show chutzpah, even without that mini skirt.’

 

The End

 

 

 

 

 

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