An extract from Ferne Arfin’s debut novel, Tunnel of Mirrors, published by Green River Press in February 2022
“What is it like…when you’re married?” Ruth asked. Although eighteen months older than Rachel, she was just beginning to notice boys.
“What is what like? You live with someone; you eat together; you sleep together. You know. Like Mama and Papa.”
“No, that’s not what I mean.”
“Well, what do you mean?”
“You know…when you’re younger than Mama and Papa…it’s different…isn’t it? When you…Oh, you know. Do you wear clothes when you sleep?”
“Of course I do. I wear a nightgown, just like Mama.”
Ruth was not satisfied. She was having some difficulty framing her questions and Rachel, who was afraid she knew exactly what Ruth meant, was being deliberately obtuse.
“Does he kiss you?”
“Of course he does. He’s my husband.”
“What does it feel like when he kisses you?”
“It feels um nice.”
Although Schmuel had kissed Rachel repeatedly, and flamboyantly, in front of their wedding guests, he hadn’t touched her since. She could barely remember that day, let alone what Schmuel’s kisses felt like. Still, she sensed that this was the sort of thing a young girl talked about with her married sister. She didn’t want to disappoint Ruth. She closed her eyes and imagined the taste of a kiss.
So soft and smooth. His lashes feather my cheek. And his tongue is like silk. I rest my face in the warm hollow of his throat, where his skin is so fine I can feel his heartbeat against my eyelids. He is damp and salty, smelling of nectarines. I hold his head in my hands, my fingers combing his curly hair. And he kisses my neck, my shoulders, my breasts. His breath surprises the tender skin behind my knees. His cheek is cool and sandy where my legs are warm and smooth. There is no part of me his lips do not visit, no part of me his tongue does not taste. And I do the same. His body is a great mystery. For though it is hard and muscled, it is as soft as his touch. His arms, his thighs, his buttocks are furred and downy. The soles of his feet are like warm velvet. All over him, there are secret, fragrant places alive with the rhythm of his heart. Gently, he strokes my thighs until I open to him and when he enters, I am a sheath, fashioned only to hold him, golden and glowing, hot and silken as his tongue. Soon there is no place but the place where we are joined, no part of me but the parts where we touch, where I struggle to cross the barrier of our skins. If I hold him tightly, I will vanish into his flesh, disappear like a drop in the sea, a breath on the sky. I cannot bear to be so separate. I growl and tear and shout his name. Then, he stops my voice with his own, a long, sweet shuddering cry. And suddenly we are the sea; we are the sky. There is nothing else beneath the stars but what we are. We lie with each other in waves of light that spread like ripples on a pond until they cover us with sleep.
“Schmuel doesn’t have curly hair.”
Rachel looked at Ruth and realised, with a start, that she had actually uttered all she had imagined. Ruth’s eyes were wide and her mouth was hanging open. Rachel could feel the heat of a scarlet blush creeping up her neck.
“Anyway,” she said, “you don’t need to know about things like that. You’re just a baby.”
“I’m older than you.”
“Don’t you ever tell anybody what I told you. It was just something I…I read in a book. I made it up.”
But Rachel, still virginal after months of marriage, was wet and spent. She had no idea where the vision, which she had seen and felt with the conviction of memory, had come from. She had not made it up. Not one word.
They stopped going to Dreamworld. “Married people don’t do that,” Schmuel said. And now that Bessie spent all day at Mishkin’s and most nights with Schmuel, Rachel never saw her. Except for Friday nights, Schmuel and Bessie spent most of their time in Bessie’s new apartment.
On Friday nights, Rachel and Schmuel fulfilled their mutual bargain by pretending to be a couple celebrating sabbath with the in-laws.
Once Rachel invited both families for Shabbas at West 12th Street, because she thought it was a married sort of thing to do. The evening was not a great success. Even though Sophie had written careful instructions for the simple meal, and even though Rachel followed them to the letter, the chicken tasted like softened wood, the carrots and potatoes were hard in the middle. Everyone was excessively polite. What with all the effort and concentration of chewing, nobody had time to ask nosey questions. While she and Ruth cleared the dishes, Rachel overheard her father-in-law reassure Schmuel. “Don’t worry, she’ll learn. Your mother too could burn water at the beginning.” After that they alternated Friday nights between the families.
When they went to East Broadway, Schmuel’s older sister cooked. Dinah was sensible and straightforward. She had lost her own chance of marriage while looking after her father and brother but the sacrifice did not seem to have embittered her; she had few illusions, but she was not hard. If the situation were different, Rachel would have enjoyed having Dinah as a confidante and friend.
Rachel missed the intimacy of friendship. Without Bessie, there was no one to tell about the changes taking place in Schmuel. They began just a few weeks after the wedding. She had been ironing his shirts – For all you’re costing me, you could at least do my laundry – when she forgot and called him Schmuel.
“I told you, I am Sammy to you,” he growled.
“I’m sorry…I forgot.”
“Yeah?” he said. And he hit her face so hard her nose bled. “Maybe now you’ll remember.”
Another time he hit her because she spent seventy-five dollars of the wedding present money on a couch for the parlour.
“Whaddya need that for? Seventy-five bucks! What, so your mother can sit like a queen when she comes to complain about me?”
“My mother doesn’t complain about you.”
“Oh yeah? You think I don’t hear from my father how she worries I play cards too much? Ain’t you got enough brains to make up some other excuse when I’m not here?”
“You do that…Seventy-five bucks. Geez, you stupid broad…I had plans for that dough.” And he stormed out.
Perhaps it was not Schmuel, but only the situation that had changed. After all, Rachel had given him so little thought before they married, she had no real idea of him. Or of what he was like under pressure. And as is usually the case, money, or the lack of it, caused pressure almost from the start.
Schmuel had expected a raise now that he was married. “What for?” The Man said. “I pay you plenty enough to keep a wife very comfortable. You wanna keep a chicky on the side, that is not my problem. Maybe you should have been so smart as to wait until you got promoted to take up with another dame. Then you could afford to cheat on your wife.”
Bessie didn’t consider Schmuel’s lack of money her problem either. With the sort of twisted logic that only Bessie could sustain, she figured that, as Schmuel’s kept woman, she was entitled to the kind of presents she could buy for herself with the money she earned at Mishkin’s. The fact that she could afford to be free with her earnings because Schmuel paid her rent did not enter into it.
And Bessie was bored. “All we ever do anymore is eat and screw…You don’t buy me nothing…You don’t never take me no place. I’m sick of stew” – Bessie’s skills in the kitchen were only marginally better than Rachel’s – “I wanna go to Delmonico’s.”
All Schmuel wanted was what he figured men have always wanted. Good sex, a few laughs, peace and quiet. Almost at once, he began to lose the very things he had married to acquire.
When Bessie didn’t get her way, Bessie crossed her legs.
“This is the third day in a row you give me the same crap. Ain’t there nothing else to eat in this house?” Schmuel picked over a plate of noodles and pot cheese.
On a Monday night, during the dog days, Schmuel had moved into the spare room at West 12th Street. He and Bessie, he said, had had words. He didn’t say what about. “Ah, she’ll get over it. She’s probably on the rag.” But she was taking her time. Whatever was bothering Bessie on Monday was still bothering her when Saturday rolled in with a layer of humidity that sat on the city like grease.
Rachel didn’t like having Schmuel around. She would have liked to strip down to her shift to cool off. When Schmuel was annoyed with Bessie, he became sullen and the August heat did not improve his temperament.
“I could make you some eggs,” she said.
“Yeah, you do that.” He poured himself a whiskey. “Don’t you have no place to go?” he said.
“It’s too hot and muggy to go out.”
Rachel felt him watching as she moved between the icebox and the stove.
“That a new dress?”
“No, I made it from an old one.”
“Glad to hear somebody knows how to save money.”
He stretched back in his chair and half closed his eyes.
“Why don’t you go apologize to Bessie.”
“I ain’t got nothing to apologize for.”
She wet a cloth at the sink and ran it over her face. Then she broke the eggs into a bowl and beat them with a fork. She poured them onto sizzling butter in a skillet. Hot air shimmered over the black surface of the stove. The eggs snapped and bubbled. While she watched them, Rachel reached back and unfastened the top two buttons of her dress, lifted her heavy braid and wet the nape of her neck with the cool cloth. She thought about the cold bath she was going to take as soon as she finished in the kitchen.
After she put the eggs on the table, Rachel turned to go, but almost immediately Schmuel grabbed her by the wrist and pulled her back. “Christ almighty…can’t you even crack an egg? Jesus, I’m bleeding.”
Perhaps it was the heat. Perhaps it was the week of his constant, unwanted company. Or perhaps it was the memory of an Italian boy who had once left his purple fingerprints on her arm. Suddenly, Rachel crackled with anger. “Let go of me,” she snapped, pulling her hand away.
Schmuel lunged and caught the back of her skirt. She felt a staccato ripple as the fabric gave way. He spun her around, snatching her flailing arms. His gums bled, cut by a shard of eggshell that had slipped between his teeth. “Look what you done to me, you useless bitch,” he snarled and spat a mouthful of bloody eggs onto the table.
He was standing. The strength of his grip astonished her. She struggled to free herself but his fingers burned like knotted rope. Then he let go of her right wrist and wrenched her head back by her braided hair. “Here,” he said, “taste your cooking.” And he pressed his dripping, feral mouth against hers, leaving a smear of bloody saliva on her lips and chin. She spat at him and, with her free hand, scratched at his face, his ears. “Jesus…Bitch,” he said, and he punched her in the stomach. As she doubled over, he threw her down. She was aware of a cupboard door grazing her forehead and the sharp crack of her head hitting the floor.
Now he was on top of her, on the floor. With his left hand, he held both of hers, pushing them against her throat with the weight of his body so that she could hardly breathe. He was using his right hand to tear at her clothes and his own. She pressed her legs together and tried to raise her knees to push him off, but he was sitting on them. He dug his fingernails into her thighs to prise them apart and fell on her. She could feel his belt buckle cutting into her side. The rhythmic jab of its metal tongue punctuated the dull pounding as he beat himself against her. He stank of eggs and sweat. Weak, from lack of air, Rachel gave up her silent struggle and waited for Schmuel to finish. She let her mind float free, watching from somewhere above, so that even the startled gasp that accompanied the knifelike shock of penetration, seemed to come from someone else, some poor, bruised woman crumpled on the floor below.
But she cannot so easily escape awareness. The fires that burn us…you…The chains that bind us…you…When she closes her eyes, another, the one who is always at the edge of awareness, stares back. Oh, my beloved friend. Her eyes burn with his tears of frustrated rage. His mouth is stretched in a roar that thunders through time, rivers of guilt and shame in her rushing pulse.
A cold, numbing pain spread across her belly. Schmuel thrust against her, grunted and rolled off. For a moment, she lay on the kitchen floor, unable to move. Then she gathered her torn clothes around herself and limped to the bathroom.
She took a rough towel and tried to scrape away the filth between her legs. She wanted to scrub away every trace of him. To scorch him off her skin. But she was too sore and swollen to touch herself, to make herself feel clean. She looked at the towel. There was blood and a fetid, marshy smelling sap that turned her stomach. She tasted bile at the back of her throat and leaned over the bathtub to wretch.
She flinched when Schmuel came to the bathroom door. “Don’t worry. I ain’t gonna hurt you,” he said.
Rachel answered him with her wide, brown eyes. As others had before him, Schmuel shivered in their stillness. He became defensive. “Come on, it wasn’t so bad,” he said. “You might even get to like it. Lotsa women do.”
Although Schmuel was not of an imaginative bent, the hatred and vengeance in her gaze was eternal. It passed through him, beyond him, as deep and infinite as the reflection in a pair of facing mirrors.
He tried to chase away the feeling with words. “Anyway…I got the right,” he said. “Who you gonna complain to? Who’s gonna blame me for schtupping my wife.” His sneering laughter died in his throat. “You ain’t thinking of telling Bessie now are you?”
Rachel didn’t answer. She turned her back to him and continued washing her thighs. He crossed the bathroom and grabbed her shoulder. “Don’t you get no wise ideas about telling Bessie, I’m warning you. Don’t you get no ideas about telling Bessie.”
He stalked out of the bathroom.
Rachel didn’t plan to tell Bessie. Or anyone else. But about a month later she woke up nauseous. And not long after that, everybody knew.