“Great Expectations” by Perel Skier, Washington Heights

Love and Heartbreak July 13, 2011 22:47


as shared at a PenTales event themed “Great Expectations”

Everyone came to their wedding, everyone in the community and all her relatives from Israel, Monsey, England and Russia, and other Rabbanim from epicenters of study and leadership. He had never seen so many hats in one place. He wanted to ask Gitty if this many had come for her older sister’s wedding, but he could not find her. Truthfully he could not find anyone and was glad that he at least looked the same as every other guy there: only the people who knew him knew it was his wedding, that he was the groom, and he blended well into the milling masses of black-suited men.
No one had come from his family. He had none.
He wandered the arching corridors of the hall with eyes wide, watching. Everyone lining up at the front table to collect their name cards, washing their hands in bowls of scented rosewater and shaking them decisively dry. He was careful to stay near the walls. So many people, so many important beards, solemn eyes, stately faces. The carpet was beautiful and flowered and smelled of antiseptic; he had smelled it only once before, at his father’s funeral.
Gitty and his mother had done everything. He knew they must have talked about it to him, but he had forgotten. Tables in the hallway with tiny gourmet sausages and little fluffy cakes, the men at one end of the hall, the women at the other, each forming little clots by the napkins, polite conversation between awkward bites. One of Gitty’s younger brothers and five of his friends crowded the beef table, loading more food than they could possibly consume on their plates. Nehemiah smiled.
Another of her brothers caught his eyes through the mulling of other men and threaded his way through to Nehemiah, desperate. “They’ve been looking for you! Your mother’s looking for you! You’re supposed to be at the tish!”
Nehemiah blinked, smiling again, to no one. The tish—his tish. And like an idiot he had walked the halls, waiting for someone else to go.
He let the brother escort him to the room with its long tables, and saw it was true they had been waiting for him. They descended on him all at once, clapping and shouting songs, stomping their feet in welcome, and he laughed because he could think of nothing else to do. They were young men, many younger even than him and most only a few years older, sweaty from dancing and red-faced, and all their eyes were trained on him. He took his seat at the head of the table, ducking his head. Gavi was there, and Shmuel Tzvi. That made him feel better and nauseous at the same time. He remembered Shmuel Tzvi’s wedding and the way he himself had danced there. If Shmuel Tzvi was here and grinning at him like that then it must be true that he was getting married.
The other faces he did not know. He marveled that so many faces could look the same.
They sang and clapped and stomped and said things about him like they knew him, which only a handful of guys there really did, and he listened politely and smiled, hearing none of it. There was a roaring in his ears. They gave him wine to drink and toasted him. He sipped a little and put it aside; he found he had no use for food or drink, his mouth felt strange. He felt like an angel. Like at any minute he would be called home.
He wished, suddenly, that Gavi or Shmuel Tzvi would come up to sit with him, talk to him and make him laugh, like they might have in yeshiva. But he saw the respect and smudge of envy in their eyes as they watched him. He was the Rav’s son-in-law already. Special. They would not presume to sit with him. None of the others would even think of it; besides the Rav, he had had no true chavrusa in years. What cold things were admiration and awe. To marry a daughter and assume a legacy. Nehemiah picked up his glass and took another sip, watching from below his eyelashes.
Then there was more clapping, more stomping, they were hooking him under his elbows and propelling him forward, marching him to her. He felt like a branch caught in a rapids. She appeared at the end of a long tunnel of men, dancing and cheering, surrounded by women also all in black: but she wore pale ivory silk. She peered up at him from behind the gauze. Through the tight lattice tears shone in her eyes. He stared down at her, surrounded on all sides by the noise and camera flares. His hands were suspended before him, helpless, and he could not bring himself to react.
His mother, seated beside her, stood and nodded emphatically, wide-eyed, and suddenly he was in it again, in front of her and flipping the veil down over her face and she was smiling at him, watery and afraid and in awe of him. Everyone was singing now and in awe and respect and envy he did not want and the Rebbetzin had cupped her hand over her mouth to stem her own tears. Everyone crying, he thought confusedly, exactly like a funeral. The smell of the carpets. They guided him away from her now to the small hidden room. Papers to sign. Solemn words inked in Yiddish, naming terms, naming him, naming her. She would have his name now: the same name. The Rav pressed close to him with the quill, flanked by other Rabbanim in embroidered caftans. Nehemiah put a hand to his forehead and stepped back from them, blinking in the cold sweat of lights. A jolt of memory: a child wriggling free of arms and the heavy hush of eulogies: racing down halls, forgotten by all except his reflection in the tall windows.
He looked away quickly and signed.
He wished desperately for a friend.
He stood under the canopy.
Rows and rows of faces looked up at him. A nice hall, a wide hall, he thought: bigger than some of his friends had had. The Rav wanted everyone to see and remember. The women on one side, the men on the other, all in black, all polite. A violin sawed a bittersweet niggun, and he thought oh, it is my father’s niggun, my mother will like this, she will cry. He stood like a statue or a soldier, meeting no one’s eye.
The double doors unfolded and she entered, the gold afternoon sun behind her, dazzling in the folds of her dress.
To her right and left her parents marched, holding candles. It seemed to him she barely moved. Her dress was beautiful: beaded up the front and pinned in delicate pleats. He realized that she was beautiful, glass-like, intricate. The dark soft hair beneath her veil. The hope in her red-rimmed eyes. The people stood as she moved past them, the only dream of white in their black finery. The room was still and silent. Neither music nor breath drawn.
He wanted time to stop. Do not walk to me, he would whisper to her, over their heads. He would walk instead to her, off the dais. Gently, his hands on her shoulders, he would turn her back to the setting sun. Go and be free. Go and be free.
But the sunlight stretched down the aisle, and shadows lengthened. She stood before him, looking up, her chin tilted. Then she was beside him. A scent of lilac enveloped her and wrapped around him. She stood very straight, not looking at him, and only he could see her mouth quivering behind the lace.
He did not exhale as she circled him, his mother and hers carrying the long train of her gown. Everywhere white: he closed his eyes and prayed, as he had not truly prayed in years.
Let me be good, Master of the World, he pleaded. With his Creator, and with himself. Make me good enough. Make me good like my father. Make me good.
Help me understand this.
Then it was over, without warning. She was waiting for him. He opened his eyes and looked at her. A heady sip of wine. A crunch of glass beneath his shoe, like bone. Mazal tov! Mazal tov! Horns striking up, and everyone laughing and smiling, and her looking at him, a look like a wound: oh please, please, he thought, wildly, let me be good.

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