The Seamstress


Sarah Tzafona, Cluculz Lake, BC


Then the eyes of both of them [Adam and Eve] were open and they perceived that they were naked; and they sewed together fig leaves and made themselves loincloths. Genesis: 3:7

Amira glanced at her watch. An hour to go. Her eyes moved to her husband. Cal was irritated, she knew that, but he was always irritated, had given the word new meaning these past years. But his irritation was worth her early arrival at the airport. She hated to fly, hated the last minute rush even worse. But she hated lots of things now-a-days. Had to admit that. She stole another glance at her husband, sitting opposite her, the newspaper hiding his face. It was a prop, the paper. Used it as an escape. Anything to avoid conversation, anything to avoid recognition of her presence. Her company wasn't nearly as good as his, her conversation paled in comparison to his thoughts. What a desert their marriage had become, a veritable wasteland. Couldn't understand how it had happened. Couldn't understand when he had changed, not to mention why. Maybe he had been victimized by one of those alien drop-ins that she had read about in one of those rags that littered up the checkout lines in the Superstore. Not that she had ever read the paper, or even purchased it. No, she had just scoffed at the headline about some Saskatchewan farmer being taken over by a space alien, an alien that was determined to altar the world. She wondered if Cal had ever been to Saskatchewan, had ever been tinkered with by one of those aliens. That certainly would explain his personality change.

Amira sighed softly, instantly regretting the soft puff of her breath. Hope Cal didn't hear that. She wasn't in the mood to watch him roll his eyes or listen to his opinions about her martyrdom complex. No. Keep hiding behind the paper, Cal. Keep your hearing aid turned down. Keep ignoring me. Would rather be ignored than listen to your assessment of my character. Don't want to hear about how you created me, made me the woman that I am today and then listen to you bemoan the fact that you'd done such a lousy job.

Another soft sigh. No won't go there. Why stir up the anger from the past. The present was bad enough. Wanted to reclaim some affection. Had prayed daily, in fact, to do so. Please God, help me to love him. Help me to want to love him. Can't take off for several weeks not loving him, not even sure if I like him.

Amira wanted to cry but wouldn't do it. She was just wrought up, that's all. All this worry about her mother, not knowing what she would find, not sure how she could find the words that would move the old woman into a retirement center, not to mention wrestling the car keys from her tight little fist. How could anyone be ninety-three years old and so independent? Would be devastating for her mother to leave her home, devastating to admit that she needed help, couldn't do it on her own. Getting old. What a fearful thing, even if your memory could capture the past down to a mille second, it would be a fearful thing. Dependence. Who wanted it? Amira didn't and yet she was dependent. More so than her mother, really.

She shook herself slightly. Was that true? Whom was she dependent on? Stupid question. Cal of course, Cal and his pension. Forget Cal and his love. That had disappeared when he'd made that secret trip to Saskatchewan five years ago. The aliens had sent back an unlovable man. An angry man. No, no more emotional bondage. Just a bondage to his pension, a pension that barely kept then both afloat. No sailing off to calmer waters for her. Had no skills of her own. Couldn't be self-supporting. Had never worked. Raised a family, that's all. No one considers that work in this modern society where spiffy women carrying brief cases click their high heels on the marble floors of the corporate world. Nope, she was unemployable and all because of Cal. Because, when he'd created her he'd eliminated the capability to be self-supporting? He had created her without any backup. It was his fault and he had done it on purpose, a plot to keep her dependent, keep her tied to him, the permanent housekeeper whose sleeping privileges had been revoked.

No wonder she was angry. She had been reduced to nothing. He'd get along without her quite well and she knew it. All he'd have to do is call the cleaning agency once a week to scoop out the house. No need for her anymore. She was nothing. Mrs. Nothing without skills or a future. Not quite true. There was a future. A bleak one. A lonely one, trapped in a loveless marriage.

The thought terrified her because she wasn't old. She wasn't even sixty yet. Not quite. Had six months to go. So many years to live within the wilderness of an empty marriage. So many years to do without love. She wanted to cry again. But she was stubborn. Wouldn't do it.

Amira heard the rustling of the paper. She blinked quickly then looked at her husband. He was folding the paper neatly, then folded it once more, in half, smoothing it out once he placed it on the small table in front of them. He loved that paper. It would be awful for him if the publisher went belly up. There'd be no way for him to communicate with the outside world. No way to voice his brilliant opinions in his twice monthly Letter to the Editor. Yes, he and the faceless editor were pen pals, had bonded securely, with the editor printing every word that Cal wrote, no editing whatsoever. Imagine that. Cal was finally published and people read his words. It gave him pride, took the sting out of his inability to have his educational articles printed by elite and snobbish journals.

Cal glanced at his watch.

"You can go if you want. No sense in you hanging around. I'll be fine," Amira offered.

He shook his head. "No. It's snowing. Your flight might be cancelled. The minute I get home you'd call and I'd have to drive all the way back."

"Yes. That would be inconvenient, wouldn't it? Silly of me not to think of that."

He looked at her blankly. Probably hadn't heard her. Never heard her. Had been hard of hearing for the last five years, well before the physical impairment had manifested. What a marriage. She wished, suddenly, that he hadn't come to the airport with her. Would have preferred her friend Debra. Would have been able to talk with her. After all, she was her best friend, in so many ways. They had a closer bonding than Cal had with the faceless newspaper editor that printed his letters. And then there was the fact that Deb was the only other Jew in this part of the country. And she was a Jew that loved Judaism and struggled to observe it in a locality that made observance difficult. And she was also the only one that shared Amira's fears of the creeping Jew hatred, and the Israel hatred, that pierced their safe, Canadian cocoon. They shared a feeling of isolation and they shared a common love and a common history. Their souls still remembered Egypt and they could still smell the smoke from European chimneys. They knew what had happen and often times spoke of common nightmares, nightmares that convinced them that it could happen again. No bonding from Cal in this respect. He was a Jew, sure. But he had rushed back to Egypt several years ago. Easier to blend in. Had hoped, perhaps that it would be easier to get published or even promoted. But he'd been wrong about that. He just wasn't erudite enough for the self loving scholars that he'd wanted to please.

Cal was looking at her or looking through her, probably, checking to see if her flight would be on time. Anxious to get rid of her. Her stomach churned, pushing anger to her mouth. "I don't know when I'll be back." She could see his eyes blink behind his glasses.

"No problem."

"And, once I get back I don't know how long I'll stay."

He blinked twice. "What?"

Her mind scurried, trying to recapture her words. Had she said what she thought she'd said? Had she voiced those secret thoughts that were kept hidden and only brought to the surface on those sleepless nights when her world closed in on her? She obviously had. Where did she find the nerve? Why would she find the nerve?

"What?" he repeated.

She swallowed. Maybe it was meant to be. Maybe she was meant to voice the thoughts that she'd shared with her own faceless editors, the ones that took up residence in her wounded memory. Maybe she cared less about re-igniting love and more about escape. "I said. I don't know how long I'll stay when I get back. If I stay at all." There it was out. Why didn't she feel better? Should feel better. Doctor Phil would say that she should feel better. She was finally bringing it out in the open, airing her grievances, getting ready to talk it out. Within forty-five minutes her future could be decided. Maybe.

"Are you saying what I think you mean. Are you going to the city for a different reason than you said. Is your mother just an excuse? Are you going to see a rabbi, then come back and ask me for a get--Jewish divorce--is that it?"

Was that anger or panic she heard in his voice? She didn't know. Didn't know how to answer him. Was as surprised by her statement as he was. Analyze, Amira. Quickly analyze. What did you mean? No, she wasn't going to see a rabbi. Hadn't thought about it. Wouldn't think about it because any decision concerning her marriage had to be her own. She didn't want input from a rabbi, not Debra, not her mother. Especially not her mother. Wasn't sure whose side she would be on. Oh, she'd give support, alright, but she knew her mother's grey brows would knit together as she'd try to squeeze inside Amira's head and get the whole truth. No, this would have to be Amira's decision alone, decided from her own truth. That way she could be assured of being in the right.

"Let's face it, Cal, we don't have a marriage for me to return to. Don't even have a relationship, do we?"

He pushed his glasses back onto the bridge of his nose. She wished he hadn't done that. It brought back good memories, endearing memories. She used to love it when he'd do that, all those years ago when they were young and their marriage vibrant, before life and failures made inroads. He used to do it whenever he was trying to concentrate, to get the whole truth. He would measure every word, turn it over and make sure no pain would be attached. And his glasses would also be pushed back whenever he would look at her, as if he were trying to concentrate fully on his love for her. But he didn't do that anymore. He'd forgotten how. Was afraid to, she thought because medical conditions prevented love from entering the bedroom. And he felt diminished, even angry. She understood that. She shook herself. Yes, Amira regretted that he'd done the glasses thing. Didn't want to be reminded of his pain. Didn't want to be reminded of her own failures, that she simply had been unable to put the right words together, words that said it didn't matter. I love you. That's all that counts. Being close, having you healthy and with me is what's important. But that wasn't enough, he wouldn't believe her, even decided that somehow it was her fault. Then finally they quit touching. What was the point?

That doctor's office, she realized and the resulting surgery was the equivalent of a Saskatchewan field. A different Cal had emerged from that hospital. She sighed softly. But that wasn't all. There was more to it than cancer and the debilitating surgery. The change had started before that, she was sure of it. Had almost pinpointed the time during one of those sleepless nights that plagued her.

"What do you mean no marriage, no relationship? What are you talking about? That's crazy." Cal paused, gulped then looked around the room before leaning towards her. "Is it because……" he whispered, his glasses slipping almost to the tip of his nose "Is it because of…of the cancer, the surgery?"

She was horrified. "NO! That's not it at all!" She inhaled deeply, wishing that she had just kept her mouth shut. He was just going to turn it around, blame her, bury her in guilt. Well, she wouldn't let him. Enough is enough. "No! It's because after the surgery, I disappeared for you. You wouldn't acknowledge my existence. You cut yourself off from my life, wouldn't communicate, would share nothing with me. You threw out our religion and threw away our friends. You bonded with the keyboard, emailing letters to the editor, our local paper as well as any paper that would print your opinions. Your letter writing became your whole world. You excluded me in every way."

He sat straighter, pushing his glasses back. "That's it? My letter writing bothers you, my lack of observance? That started before the surgery. You know that. And you never said anything. You never complained. Why complain now? Why desert me because of something that you obviously had found acceptable? You're using that as an excuse, that's all. It's the surgery. I knew this would happen!"

Yup, see, she was right. No matter what, he would twist everything and blame her. What happened to the man who used to have a censor at his mouth, a censor that would bar the escape of injurious words? He had caught the competitive spirit, that's what, had wanted to come out on top in the blame game. And maybe he was right in some respects. She had kept quiet when he'd begun to commit the offences that she'd just accused him of. She thought back remembering the dismantling of their religion, shrugging it off bit by bit until one day there was nothing left. It was for his work. Had to complete an article, had to grade those papers, had to attend a dinner party, rub shoulders with department heads, let them know he existed. He was always irritated by her refusal to participate in the shoulder rubbing and hinted vaguely at her fanaticism in keeping Shabbat. The narrowing of his eyes behind the thick lens of his glasses had been a warning to her, didn't want to hear his opinion of her observance. Wanted to keep out of that territory altogether. So she had kept her mouth shut.

But it wasn't just the religion. There had been other offences, that had built up, one small infraction after another. She remembered an argument they had just before his surgery. He had just been passed over for a promotion. He'd been certain that he'd had it all sewed up. After all, he had been there for years, was well thought of by his students. But some young guy with less experience had bull-dozed his way into the position, devastating Cal and sending him to the powers that be, demanding an explanation. "He's been published," Cal had been told. As simple as that.

Well, the simplicity of the answer had sent Cal into a tail spin. He had reassessed his career. Couldn't believe that so many years as a dedicated university professor accounted for nothing. The waste of it all, the waste of writing all those articles, the waste of encouraging students to think and to take pride in their work, the waste of spending all those stolen hours from Shabbat spent in the company of intellectual wannabes. He had finally decided to retire . He wasn't feeling well, anyway. So why not?

Cal's withdrawal from the classroom was accompanied by the withdrawal from life in general. She had become a premature widow, learning to live life without him. Finally one day, Amira had found her voice and she complained about his withdrawal, telling him that he had been an excellent teacher, had helped many students, shouldn't take the loss of a promotion seriously. In any event, he was retired now, had a new life ahead of him.

He had lashed out at her. What did she know about anything? She'd never worked, didn't have a profession, never even finished university. How could she understand what he was going through?

She couldn't believe that Cal had said that, couldn't believe that he thought so little of her contributions to the family, to his life. She hadn't responded. Couldn't trust herself so she had left the house, leaving his pain and taking hers with her. She had walked for over an hour in the wood lot behind their home, finally sitting on a rotting log and crying until her throat was raw and her stomach hurt.

She had refused to mention the argument again, had hoped, though that he would be contrite and alter his habits. But he wasn't and he didn't. So she'd decided to branch out on her own, developing a life, one that was almost satisfying, one that proved that she was worth something. She'd begun to volunteer more. Started at the Lodge, listening to the stories of the old people that lived there, often times, searching for shared fragments from marriages that had gone wrong, looking for comfort, needing to know that her experience wasn't unique. But she had never openly discussed her loneliness with the residents, not even with Deb. Never could talk about the depth of the ice floe that separated her from Cal. Couldn't admit that her husband didn't love her anymore.

"You're right," she said, as she disengaged herself from the old arguments. She watched as his features seem to crumble, his eyes blinking furiously, his chin trembling as if some inner quake was rolling though his body. "No, no, not what you think. The cancer isn't what I'm talking about. You're right about the changes you made, shedding our religion and the obsession with your letters, holing up in your office, pulling away from the world. And you're right about my silence. It frightened me. I didn't say anything because I was afraid."

"Afraid. Afraid of what? That's stupid."

"Afraid of the reasons. I knew that when we married that you weren't particularly religious but you went along with me because you loved me and you realized how important our religion was to me. But then you gave it up, and you hid away in your office. Didn't want anything to do with me. What was I to think?"

"What did you think?"

"I thought that you didn't love me anymore. Thought that the so-called intellectual bunch up at the university had finally rubbed off on you, that I embarrassed you with my lack of education, my lack of profession. Isn't that what you said at one time, that I couldn't understand, I'd never worked, had no education. I was nothing in your eyes and in the eyes of the bunch on the hill?"

He shook his head. "No, that's not true." He leaned towards her once more. "I've never compared you to them. There could never be a comparison. They're full of themselves. Don't really care about anything but their own self-images, always spouting intellectual nonsense, that sounds good but is meaningless. They're nothing."

"Well you certainly spent a lot of time with nothing, trying to get nothing's attention. That nothing was more important than I was, Cal. And that's a fact!"

"Don't you understand? That was my work. Who I was. I needed to get ahead, be something. You have to play the game and they were part of the game. That's all." He paused, inhaling deeply. "They were successful. I wasn't. I have nothing to show for all those years of teaching, not even one lousy paper could get published. I'm a failure, Amira. A lousy, stinking failure. Is it so wrong to want to succeed?"

"No, but at what expense, Cal? And besides, in whose eyes are you a failure? Who gives a darn about them and what they think? They're nothing, remember? You're not a failure in my eyes, nor in the kid's. And your students, they've always respected you. Why would you let those people validate or invalidate your worth? That's crazy."

"To you. But not to me. A man has to have something to show for his life."

"You do. You've got three wonderful kids, Jewish kids, who aren't afraid or embarrassed to live their religion. They've got good marriages, and two of them have given you grandchildren. What more could you ask for, Cal, wonderful children and grandchildren? You've got family and you've also got a life filled with good deeds. What else is there when it comes down to it?"

He shook his head again, eyes downcast. "You just don't understand," he repeated.

Maybe not, she thought. Maybe she could never understand. Maybe understanding wasn't worth the effort anymore.

An announcement over the loudspeaker caught her attention. She welcomed it, was tired of the conversation with Cal. It was going nowhere. She glanced out the window and saw a plane taxi up the runway. It would be her plane. The passengers would file out, the plane would be cleaned and refuelled then she'd embark, heading south, possibly leaving her marriage.

Amira looked at her husband. He also seemed to be looking at the plane. He suddenly looked old. Had aged five years in less than an hour. She'd done that to him. She wanted to cry, cry for him and his lost youth, his lack of self-worth and his sadness. She must still love him in some way or his misery wouldn't effect her like this. She must still love him or she'd be on her feet and heading through security, without even looking back. And she must love him because she was suddenly willing to share the blame in the rupture of their marriage. Her silence had given him permission to withdraw.

Amira reached across the table and took his hand. It felt cold. He seemed to shudder then he looked at her then down at her hand covering his. His fingers folded up, gripping hers. How long had it been since he'd held her hand? She couldn't remember, two, three years? A lifetime? "If we want to go on together," she began, "then we've got to make some changes. I've got to live up to the meaning of my name. Amira means speech. I've got to talk about what bothers me. I can't hold it in. It just festers. But I need you to listen." She pulled her hand away and reached into her purse, her fingers searching a small pocket. She pulled out one of those little sewing kits that she'd picked up at the Dollar Store. Always prepared, that was Amira, ready to sew on a button or stitch up a small rip. She placed the foil packet in his palm. "Do you remember in Genesis, when Adam and Eve ate from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil and they noticed that they were naked?"

"Yes, but what does that have to do with anything?"

She fought her impatience. "What did they do?"

His eyes blinked once more behind his glasses. She sensed that he was about to cry.

"I don't know, Amira," he said, his voice gravely. "I simply don't know."

"They sewed together fig leaves and made themselves loin cloths."

"I don't understand."

She covered his hand with hers once more. "Remember, the Midrash had an explanation of that verse? 'You have ruined things. Take a thread and sew it up.'* Adam and Eve made a mess of things. Had ignored the one mitzvah they had, and was consequently stripped of it, left naked. They had to fix it themselves. No one else could do it for them, had to take up the needle and thread and repair the damage they'd done."

He shook his head slightly. "I still don't understand."

"That's us. That's our marriage. The seams in our chuppah-marriage canopy-are splitting. We've got to repair it, have to stitch it back together. We've both made mistakes. But I can't correct your mistakes. You've got to. And I've got to correct my own, also. Do you understand now? If we're to put our marriage back together we've got to get busy with this needle and thread. But you've got to want to do it."

Her flight was being called now. She glanced around as she saw passengers begin to line up for security. Looking back at her husband she saw that in just a few moments he had shrunk, pulling inward. She became frightened for him, for her and their future. Quickly, she folded his fingers over the small foil wrapped packet that still remained in his palm. "I've got to go."

"But I love you," he said, his voice barely audible over the din of the airport.

She wasn't sure if he'd understood anything she'd said or if he'd even heard. "And I love you, too. But I can't go on living like this. Things have got to change. I want my husband back, the Calev that I married, the bold one, the one that worked hard at our marriage. The sewing kit. I meant it. You've got to get stitching. And so do I." She bent down and kissed his cheek. "I love you," she repeated. "I have always loved you." Abruptly she turned and rushed to the line up, not looking back until she'd cleared security. When she finally turned she saw him standing at the window, his hand on the glass, the sewing kit held between his thumb and forefinger. His lips were moving and she wondered what he was saying. The words were probably silent, thundering in his head. She wondered if he would use the kit and if he did she wondered what kind of tailor he would make. And she also wondered what kind of a seamstress she would turn out to be. A good one, she hoped. Honest and good.



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