When Deborah Feldman and her new husband, Eli, failed to consummate their marriage on their wedding night, her mother-in-law interrogated her about it the very next day. Oh, the horror. Share her shame, taken from her memoir Unorthodox: The Scandalous Rejection of My Hasidic Roots.
I offer Eli’s mother coffee, tea, any excuse to use my new dishes, and when she politely refuses, I insist on arranging chocolates prettily on a silver dish.
“So how’d it go?” she asks.
I smile politely but I’m confused. Not because I don’t know what she might mean, but because I can’t possibly believe she’d address it so directly. I murmur vaguely and indistinctly, “Oh, fine,” and wave away her question like an annoying fly. I think to myself, This is between Eli and me, we can take care of our own business; he wouldn’t want me to involve anyone.
My mother-in-law’s face draws tighter and she takes her hands off the tablecloth. “My husband tells me it wasn’t finished.”
I’m speechless. I don’t ask her anything. I just sit there, mortified, feeling that weightlessness again: if I don’t hold on to the table leg, I will release into the sky like a helium balloon.
The door opens before I can say anything, and Eli and his father are at the door. My mother-in-law stands up and reaches forward to air-kiss me good-bye. I don’t lean in toward her, and she leaves with her husband, shutting the door behind her. My eyes are on Eli, but his eyes are downcast. My body feels hard on the outside but mushy in the center. If the shell collapses, the filling will just spill out, I think, as I look down at the untouched chocolate bonbons on the table.
“What happened?” I ask Eli. “What did you tell your father?”
He cringes at the urgency in my tone. “I didn’t tell him anything; he asked me!” he protests quickly. “I was so taken by surprise, I just told him the truth. I didn’t think he would tell anyone!”
“You told your father? Your mother knows! She’ll tell everyone! Your whole family probably knows! My whole family probably knows by now too! What were you thinking?”
“I don’t know, I wasn’t thinking, I was taken by surprise!”
“Don’t you think this is our problem to take care of? Don’t you think this is something private that a couple should deal with on their own? Didn’t you think it would be embarrassing to me, to you, to have everyone know our private business?”
I’m panicking now, thinking of the possibilities, of one person whispering to another, of the way gossip travels like lightning in my world, and all I can see now is a future of walking down Lee Avenue and having people point and whisper about me, about the girl that couldn’t do it. Oh, the horror. I will never live this down.
Eli interjects, a pained look on his face. “It’ll be fine. My father says we’ll just have to do it tonight. We’ll get it done, and once it’s done, no one will be able to say anything. We’ll try to leave the minute the sheva berachos is over, so we won’t be too tired. Maybe that was the problem last night, maybe we were too tired!”
“Maybe,” I say, but I know that’s not it. That wouldn’t explain my womb’s failure to open its doors at that very loud and persistent knock.
My strange, rebellious womb, that doesn’t want guests.