Dana and her husband, Jonathan, stand next to each other on a footbridge, separated by a loaf of stale bread and a gulf of regret. Below them, a few dozen members of their congregation lace the shoreline of Rock Creek. Save for Dana and Jonathan they are either families with children or gray-haired empty nesters.
The first year they were married, Jonathan had pulled her along to the tashlich service, the symbolic casting away of sins at the start of the Jewish new year. The ceremony, in which bits of bread are thrown into a body of water, didn’t move Dana the way it moved Jonathan. As far as she could see, they were both good people without much to apologize for. She wasn’t too stressed about her name being inscribed for another year into the Book of Life, whatever that meant. Jonathan had said it was a nice excuse to take a break from the busyness of life, to experience a sense of renewal. Dana had said it was an elaborate way to feed ducks.
But now she is five years into her marriage and wonders if redemption is possible. What forgiveness might look like.
Their synagogue dues have been paid for by Jonathan’s parents, Howard and Barbara. If only Dana and Jonathan lived closer, Barbara had lamented, they could come to Temple Beth El for services. But since the annual fee at B’nai Israel included tickets for the High Holidays, the in-laws reasoned, the membership almost paid for itself. Plus it had a nursery school, Howard had said with a gleaming smile.
What Howard and Barbara never considered was that it wouldn’t have occurred to Dana to worry about attending services on the High Holidays. Her parents had separated during the year leading up to her bat mitzvah, and while they had shielded her from their feuds over child support and visitation times, they did not spare her the spectacle of their arguments over the guest list or the budget for her party. Her father accused her mother of thinking she was planning a wedding, while her mother retorted that she couldn’t do everything on a shoestring, and solved the problem by slashing most of her father’s guest list. To the extent that the day had felt joyful, it was because the whole ordeal was over. After that her parents let their synagogue membership lapse. That it was no longer needed seemed to be the one thing they could agree on. Dana didn’t attend services again until she met Jonathan.
And now here she is on a bridge, cradling day-old bread. Cantor Joan, a slender woman wearing a flowing lavender dress, white prayer shawl, and beaded kippah made of silver wire, smiles as she leads a niggun. The notes of the wordless chant seem to lift her body. She does not look like someone who has come to the water to unburden her soul, Dana thinks. She looks like someone who loves her job. As the song concludes, Cantor Joan opens her prayer book. In the open space of nature, with no walls or ceiling, and with the sound of cars passing on the parkway above the water, she shouts to make herself heard.
“Micah said, ‘God will take us back in love. God will cast— tashlich—our sins into the depths of the sea,’” she calls. “Micah is telling us that we can separate ourselves from our past sins.” She pauses and surveys the crowd. “Just as the water carries away these crumbs, our mistakes can be carried away too.” She closes her prayer book and throws some bread into the water, then turns out her dress pockets to shake them over the water’s edge.
Dana clutches the crusty oblong loaf, which protrudes from the white paper bag. She feels a tug as Jonathan breaks off a piece. He holds it in both hands. He is crying.
“I don’t know where to start,” he says.
“We probably should have brought more bread,” she says.
JUST WEEKS BEFORE, THEY HAD BEEN STANDING in their kitchen prepping dinner when Dana said, “I called the clinic today. There’s been a cancellation. They can see us this Friday.” Dana was chopping vegetables and didn’t look up when she said this.
“Have you been calling them every day?” Jonathan asked, peering from behind the open refrigerator door.
“Well it’s not like we have time to waste.” Dana pushed a pile of carrots to one side with the back of the knife blade and set to work on a red pepper. Jonathan came to one side and picked up a couple of carrot spears.
“I’m sorry, Babe, but I have a meeting Friday.”
Dana wondered why he had to chew so loudly. “You didn’t even ask me what time.”
“Okay, what time?” Jonathan took another bite of carrot.
Dana put the knife on the cutting board and turned to look at her husband. “Unbelievable,” she said.
“Well who knew getting pregnant could be so inconvenient? Can’t we just go the old-fashioned route?” Jonathan shimmied his hips from side to side and licked his remaining carrot stick. Dana was unsure whether he was trying to be sexy or if he was making a joke about how people look when they are trying to be sexy. Either way she was not impressed.
“We’ve been going the old-fashioned route for over a year. We could’ve had a baby by now.”
“My parents said it took them two years to conceive me.” Jonathan slid the carrot into his mouth and reached for a bit of pepper. His temples pulsed as he chewed.
“You’ve talked to your parents about this?”
“My mom says that women who are too health conscious sometimes don’t ovulate.”
“She’s just pissed because I actually have some control over what I put in my mouth. And what comes out of it for that matter. She’s probably blabbed to her whole book club that I can’t get pregnant.”
“Why do you care what some old ladies are talking about at their book club?”
“You’re right. I don’t care about that. I care that you talk more to your parents about our problems than to me. You’re not a child. Your parents don’t need to be involved in every aspect of your life.”
“I just think you should relax.”
“Who gave you that advice—your mom or your dad?”
“How about we open up a bottle of red? I bought a nice Cab on the way home.”
Dana wiped her hands on a dishtowel and shouldered past her husband. “I’m going to work out. The appointment’s at 2:30 on Friday. Make it work.”
At the gym, Dana set the treadmill to a faster setting than usual. The whirring of the machine coupled with the pounding of her feet on the belt didn’t quite soothe her, but it brought some satisfaction. Her phone lay in the cupholder, and she saw it light up. A text from Jonathan.
“Remind me and I’ll c if I can move my meeting”
This, Dana thought, was what passed in Jonathan’s mind as an apology. She tossed the phone back in the cupholder, turned up the incline of the treadmill. Her phone flashed again.
“Have you called insurance to make sure fertility covered”
Dana typed, “maybe you should have your parents call the insurance company,” but didn’t hit send. She tossed her phone back into the cup holder, with the screen turned away from herself.
That’s when she noticed Marco from her spin class. When they met she had enjoyed his flirtatious asides—his funny facial expressions evoking the instructor’s overplucked eyebrows, the way he would wink at her and sing along every time a Madonna song came on. He had suggested they exchange numbers so they could coordinate their workouts. Dana had assumed he was gay.
She found out when she complimented his new workout clothes, green-trimmed mesh shorts cut high on the side with a tank top that showed off his arms. Dana had reached out to pinch the piping along the hemline. Marco caught her hand and gave it a squeeze. Dana pulled away and hopped onto her bike. When the class ended he asked if she wanted to grab a bite to eat. She told him she had to get up early for a work meeting.
Now she decided to ask him for a drink. Marco didn’t seem at all surprised by her invitation. He said he knew a place a block away with a great deal on margaritas.
They found two seats at the end of the bar. They laughed easily over small things, inventing nicknames for the other spin class regulars. When Dana realized they had drained the pitcher Marco had ordered, she hopped off her barstool, said she should be getting home. Marco stepped down from his seat too, leaving only inches between them. “Let me guess—early meeting?” he smiled, his eyes on her mouth. His teeth were perfect.
“Well, not too early,” she said, rolling onto the balls of her feet to kiss him.
NOW, DANA STARES DOWN AT THE WATER. “I never meant for it to happen,” she says.
It’s warm for September. A hint of sewage wafts upward, turning Dana’s stomach. She takes a bit of bread and holds it in her mouth. Focuses on the sensation of it moistening and softening upon her tongue. A bicyclist coasts across the bridge; the wooden boards rattle under Dana’s feet.
Cantor Joan and the congregants begin to drift away. A little girl in red leather shoes and oversized hair bow toddles to the water. She leans forward to grab a stick that is peeking above the surface. The front of her dress dips into the creek. Muddy water drips down her shins, soaking her lace-trimmed ankle socks. Her father, unruffled, rolls up the sleeves of his crisp buttondown shirt and scoops her up from behind. Dana expects him to be annoyed, but he bends his neck to kiss the top of his daughter’s head. He is tall and slender like a heron, or a stork. He holds his child like a prize.
Jonathan watches the father pick his way up the embankment, then sends a morsel of bread sailing over the metal railing.
“I’m sorry,” he says.
“Why are you sorry?” Dana asks.
“I’m sorry I dragged my feet on fertility treatment. I’m sorry I questioned the cost.”
Dana swallows. “That doesn’t justify what I did.” She holds some bread over the water and lets it drop.
“True. You’ve ripped my guts out, Dana.”
Dana’s eyes fill with tears. She knows that if she blinks they will stream down her cheeks. But it doesn’t seem fair to cry.
“Who is it,” Jonathan asks, “that guy from the gym? Matteo?”
“Marco. Jesus. I feel like such an idiot.” Jonathan takes a deep, jagged breath in, lets it seep out through his lips. “Can you at least tell me it’s over?”
Dana tears off another piece of bread and considers how to answer this question. Marco had been better at flirting than he was at fucking. Once inside his apartment that night, his clumsy fingers fumbled across her skin like furry caterpillars. He pushed his tongue so far into her mouth it felt like he was licking her molars. They shared his bed with a pile of unfolded laundry, which smelled like it had been forgotten in the washer for a day or two before being transferred to the dryer. A bit of trash crinkled under her shoulder blade as Marco moved on top of her. By the time he finished and heaved his body down onto the mattress beside Dana, one leg strewn across her pelvis like a fallen tree limb, she was sober enough to notice the row of half empty glasses lining the windowsill above the bed. The old metal blinds were open; the light from the street gave the room an orange glow. She reached under her back and pulled out the foil wrapper of an energy bar. Within moments, Marco was snoring. Dana pushed his leg aside and collected her clothes into a bundle against her chest. Deciding the shower was probably even filthier than the bed, she dressed in the hallway before slipping out for home.
After that, Dana stopped going to spin class. Changed her gym schedule to avoid running into Marco. He texted once, “where u been?” Jonathan read it over her shoulder, asked who Marco was. “Just a friend from the gym,” she said, and deleted his contact information from her phone.
Then her breasts were sore. Her period was late. She peed on a stick.
“It’s over with him,” she says. “It’s been over for weeks.”
IT HAD BEEN DANA WHO CANCELLED the clinic appointment. After her failed experiment with Marco, she needed time to think. She told Jonathan that he was right, that they should be patient. But then she avoided him. Stayed late at work. Went to bed early. After just a couple of weeks, going to bed early became less about staying away from Jonathan and more about giving her body something it craved. Rather than flailing in the darkness, she slumbered. Would wake feeling like she had been flattened by a steam roller, so would hoist the blankets to her chin and descend back into her dreams.
When she was awake it was difficult to mask the changes in her appetite. Vegetables held no appeal now. She kept pretzels and Wheat Thins at arms’ reach. She discovered that avoiding an empty stomach was the best way to keep from throwing up, so she stashed almonds in her nightstand. Carried a little container of grapes in her purse to pull out one by one on the Metro.
She sensed that Jonathan noticed a change in her. Felt his eyes resting on her as she trailed back to their bedroom at 8 o’clock. But he said nothing. She wanted him to confront her. Scream at her. Instead he looked at her with a searching sadness that told her he was worried about her. He would reach out to touch her elbow, her shoulder. She pulled away.
“YOU’RE PREGNANT.” HIGH ABOVE, a breeze rustles the tulip-poplar leaves. Dana drops another bit of bread into the creek, watches it bob in the water before the current pulls it under the bridge and out of sight.
“I don’t know how to wash this away,”she says.
“Would you want to wash it away? Even if you could?”
“I want a baby, but I don’t know if I want this baby. I want your baby.”
“Are you sure about that?”
“Of course I’m sure. I love you, Jonathan.”
FINDING OUT SHE WAS PREGNANT WAS nothing like she had imagined it would be. No rush of joy, no Jonathan scooping her into an embrace as they hugged and laughed in their narrow bathroom. Instead she sat on the toilet, pants around her ankles, watching the absorbent material inside the pregnancy test wick her urine upward, immediately turning both lines blue. She didn’t have to look back at the package instructions to know what it meant. She felt her heart—the organ, not the symbol of love—open and empty as the blood blossomed up through her neck and filled her ears, flooding her mind with fear.
“I KEPT TELLING MYSELF YOU’D GET pregnant when the time was right. But in the back of my mind I was afraid the problem was me. Looks like I was right,” Jonathan says. He puts his elbows on the railing, cradles his forehead in his palms. His shoulders rise and fall with quiet sobs. Clipped to his soft curls is the black suede kippah he wore at their wedding. Their names and anniversary date are embossed in silver on the inside. The same date is engraved inside their wedding rings. Dana tucks the bread under her arm and looks down at her ring, twists it with the fingers from her opposite hand. Whether it’s the heat or the pregnancy, it doesn’t want to turn. She slides the rest of the loaf from the bag and flings it over the railing. It lands with a thud in the shallows.
“I’ve ruined everything,” she says, and turns to go.
“That’s it?” Jonathan looks over his shoulder at her, his voice rising. “You’re giving up just like that?”
“Aren’t you?” she says, turning back around.
“You’re my family, Dana. Baby or no baby.” This word—family— makes Dana realize she hasn’t felt like a part of one for a long time.
“I don’t know how you’ll ever be able to forgive me,” she says. “Or how I’ll ever forgive myself. It would take an ocean to wash this mess away.” She crumples the empty bread bag into a ball.
“I don’t know either,” he says, wiping his nose with the back of his hand. “But I think I want to try. If you do.” He moves toward her and tucks her hair behind her ear. “Do you want to try? To be a family?”
Dana looks at the water. With the exception of the soggy loaf of bread, it is beautiful. She reaches for Jonathan’s hand and allows her own tears to fall. “Yes,” she says. “I do.”
Briana Maley’s fiction has been published in Chaleur Magazine, Literary Mama and The Passed Note. She lives in Takoma Park, Maryland.