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Wanderings

Fraida wanders.
She walks in the shade of a freeway offramp, on a sidewalk strewn with pebbles, broken glass, and dandelions. Across the street there is a row of crumbling houses. Aaron peeks out of a crack in a boarded up window. His expression is hard to read because from this distance his full gray beard seems to cover his mouth and ring his eyes. He looks down, and a half-moon of his yarmulke is visible above his forehead.

She sees Aaron also in the street coming towards her. He walks on the white lines. A child holds his hand and takes twice as many steps as he in order to keep pace.

Danielle, Fraida’s only child, lives in Dallas with her husband and two young daughters. She has urged Fraida to settle in Texas with them. But Fraida cannot move. She is too old. And moving with all of her possessions from Hawthorne, California halfway across the country would be impossible. And even if it could be accomplished, she would not live long enough to make it worthwhile. These are the arguments she presents to Danielle.

The Aaron in the middle of the street draws closer. Fraida can see that the child he tows at his side is a very young Danielle. The two of them are dressed up as if on their way to synagogue.

Fraida’s family landed in America in 1835. She heard the details of her ancestors’ life on the Lower East Sic from her grandmother who remembered her grandmother the one who crossed. The places and dates and genealogy were drummed into Fraida’s memory as effectively as the Sunday School teachers imparted their litanies: Abraham was the father of Isaac who was the father of Jacob….

Grandmother’s grandmother was the first to set up a home in America. Her husband peddled. They lived on the second floor of a four-story house, and it seemed to them that they had more living space than existed in all of Germany.

Their sons, one by one, peddled, too. Business was good and they needed another son.

What about the daughters? Fraida wondered. Their histories were not retold, even when the storytellers were women.

The next generation of men owned a store, above Wall Street.

Fraida’s father was a middle child, born just after the store closed and his uncles all disbanded. He became a rabbi, the first one in the family, and the poorest son.

Fraida remembers hating him from the time that she was old enough to realize she didn’t have to love him. She hated how he kept himself apart from the rest of the people in the city, how everything—even trash in the gutter— was somehow, mystically holy to him. It seemed to her a silly creed, but she learned it as an absolute: the world was holy and men must keep it holy, and God was to be revered for making it holy, and women must raise holy children.

Then came Aaron. He was much like her father in his piety, yet so different in his youth and vibrancy. He recited the same morning prayers that her father recited; yet when her father davened the words sounded ancient and absurd, and when Aaron davened the words were not just words but songs of praise and beauty.

“He was an excellent man, your father.”
“Do you know what he thanked God for every morning of his adult life?” Danielle screeches.

“So he was very religious. It doesn’t bother me. If I were more religious I would probably wake up and thank God for not creating me a man. Tit for tat.”

“Do you think he believed it, Mom?”
“No. It was hard enough for him to believe in God after what he saw in Europe, let alone that God created men better than women.”

Aaron and Fraida rejoiced when their child was born, a daughter, Danielle. And then a horrendous thing happened. Fraida could not have expected it because she had scarcely even heard about such things: she found bloody clumps in her panties and she couldn’t get pregnant any more. She stopped going to the mikvah at the age of 30. She was struck by the arbitrary nature of fertility. The laments of the barren Biblical women settled in her throat. She hadn’t thought she cared so much for children. But what was she supposed to do if not suckle them and wean them and raise them? She had no idea.

She mourned in shul. She sat with the women on one side of the sanctuary. It was difficult to see the Torah on the other side, where the men sat. It was also hard to hear the prayers because children were playing noisily on the floor and women were talking to each other. Fraida tried to keep her mind off all the children she would never have as she sat in her hard folding chair, clutching her prayer book.

At least she had Danielle. She found herself breathing for Danielle when the baby had a cold, and running for Danielle when the baby could only crawl. Soon she was so intertwined with Danielle that the baby almost became the mother and the mother the baby.

A part of Fraida wished she were on the other side of the curtain, immersed in the liturgy (since she could no longer be immersed in the water). For the men, it was a mitzvah to be here praying—they derived joy from obeying this commandment. But God did not obligate women to attend shul. (Fraida remembered her mother telling her when she was very young that the reason women were excluded was that the very act of being female was obligation enough. One could not be expected to be engaged in prayer and to be a woman at the same time! “But I can do two things at once,” Fraida had protested. “Look.” She had galloped around the apartment while reciting the Pledge of Allegiance, and her mother had laughed.)

She still misses Aaron and imagines him on every street corner. But in life he would not have been found on these streets. He stayed close to his shul, his jewelry store, and his home. And she stayed by his side for the 40-odd years they were married. She is startled that the number of anniversaries they shared does not come to mind easily. Forty-two, it must have been.

She emerges from the shade of the ramp. The freeway arcs away to the north but the sidewalk continues for the west. The ramshackle houses thin out and give way to weedy fields bordered by chainlink and fences barbed wire.

“Why?” Danielle asks.
“Because I’m not confronted with myself. Everything is new and different.”

“You’ll get mugged or killed,” Danielle often tells her, not harshly but in the way that a mother speaks to a small child.

“I don’t go at night. I don’t go in the very, very bad sections,” Fraida tries to defend herself.

“If you’re in any part of L.A. at all it’s the slums. It’s all slummy. What’s wrong with Hawthorne, Mom? It’s a decent little suburb. Why don’t you just stay in Hawthorne?”

“I’ve seen Hawthorne. There’s nothing new to see.”
“Everything would be new in Texas.”
“I don’t want to be a burden to you,” Fraida always tells her daughter.
“What kind of behavior is that just to wander around the streets of a slum?”

“It’s very interesting for me. And it doesn’t cost anything. Tell me, how are the girls?” Fraida can usually change the subject in less than a minute. Aaron arranges flowers in a shop window on the corner. He fluffs great horseshoes of orange and chrysanthemums. His hands seem weightless, so delicate is his caress of the blossoms. He does not look up from task as Fraida passes.

Her feet ache. The joints of her toes on her left foot smart as she lifts them with every other step. Time to return to her car. She rounds the next corner and puts a hand to her forehead to shield her eyes from the late afternoon, mid-March sun.

When she gets home, the phone is ringing. Danielle.
“You were out walking?” Danielle shrieks. Fraida does not like what the telephone does to Danielle’s voice. “Mother, it’s dark. I know you’re two hours earlier there, but it must be very dark.”

“It wasn’t dark when I was walking. It’s hardly dark now. If you go outside you can still see streaks of light in the clouds. It’s called ‘between the evenings’: after the sun has set but before three stars have come out. You were born then. Your father said he was glad you weren’t a boy because he never would have known what day to have the bris.”

“I don’t think he was ever glad I wasn’t a boy,” Danielle laughs. “Don’t walk in the dark by yourself, Mom. I could kill him for dying and leaving you alone.”

“What? Don’t joke. Don’t hate him, either. It hurts me. I made the same mistake with my father. And anyway it hurts me to think that you hate somebody I love. Loved, I should say. How are the girls?”

“Beautiful. Sharon ate her diaper and Marsha crayoned a picture into the couch. What I want to know Is there any way to give them back? I’ve changed my mind, god, take them. Whoever said I wanted children, anyway? It’s an old notion that we have to have children—somewhere in the Bible. We don’t believe in that anymore.”
“Danielle, your jokes,” Fraida sighs.

On the first day of Spring Fraida takes a carload of empty cartons home from the grocery store. Whole sections of the house are brimming with things she never uses anymore—the rickety metal bookstand crammed with cookbooks and newspaper clippings, the hall closet and its mounds of linen, the cupboards above the refrigerator full of candy dishes and ashtrays, Aaron’s chest of drawers. What has she been waiting for?

She begins in the kitchen. She opens the cupboard under the stove and finds a set of cast iron pots she had forgotten about. They are black and flecked with rust. she lifts a small saucepan into the carton. How heavy it is for such a small pot. An image of melted cheese sticking to the inside of the pot pushes its way to the front of her memory. One evening, long ago, she had spent an hour trying to scrape this pot clean.

She fills up the rest of the first carton with plastic picnicware—a gift from forgotten friends. These item were never used. It occurs to her, though, that perhaps she should go on saving some of this for Danielle. Maybe there is value in saving, just for saving’s sake. Maybe Danielle would be amused to pick her way through the house (after Fraida is dead) and discover these things, and walk off with them into her own life, and be able to use them in ways Fraida can’t think of.

Surely Danielle has better things to do, Fraida thinks, and she resumes the harvesting of her cupboards. She leaves herself with only the pans and utensils she uses everyday. She packs away the clutter: the mugs with advertising written on them, the wineglasses with overly delicate stems, the tarnished silver trivets, the endless stock of vases … somebody somewhere will love these things. She is performing quite a mitzvah to give it all away, even though the deeper she goes the greater is her dislike of these objects. It is no sacrifice to part with them.

The first year that she and Aaron lived in the love nest on Bush Street, New York had a late Spring. But Pesach demanded that the apartment undergo a Spring cleaning nevertheless. She cleaned and cleaned. There wasn’t any dirt because they had lived there such a short time, but she cleaned anyway. The floors were polished, the carpets were raked, the windows were made into mirrors (they were that clean). Fraida had to purposely crumble a wad of stale bread onto the floor so that she would have something to sweep when she acted out the candle and feather ritual.

The apartment was dim and draped with flickering shadows. Fraida clutched the elaborate candleholder her mother-in-law had given her. The flame fanned out in back of the wick as she moved around the room—it looked like the candle was wearing a scarf held aloft by the wind. In her other hand she held a tiny paper sack and a long, broad feather. In the dimness Fraida could not see Aaron’s face, but she could hear his incantations. And she could make out his arm when he pointed down to the floor, indicating that it was time for her to stoop and sweep.

She knelt down and set the candle on the floor. The flame settled in on the wick, and the apartment grew even dimmer. She opened the sack. The sound of its quiet crackling exploded in the still room and seemed as if it could deafen them. She placed the tip of the feather to the floor and with it tried to sweep the breadcrumbs into the sack. But the crumbs adhered to the carpet. She smiled up at Aaron, whose face she couldn’t see. She tried brushing at the crumbs with the feather turned lengthwise, but the crumbs still didn’t move.
“Hmm,” she purred. She returned to the crumbs later with the carpet sweeper.
Somehow when they moved to California, the ritual was left behind.

Fraida steeps a cup of tea and sips it. She walks with her mug into the master bedroom. Aaron’s chest of drawers takes up most of the wall adjacent to the doorway. She rests an elbow on top of it, and sips, and sips. When the mug is empty, she places it on top of the chest. The chest has been there and yet it hasn’t, for she hasn’t given it a thought, much less touched it, until now. My God, what have I been waiting for, she asks herself. The top drawer slides open. It is a shallow drawer, separated into three compartments. Tie clips, tallis clasps, spare yarmulkes, cufflinks, coins, blank scraps of paper— all scrupulously arranged. Fraida picks out one of the cufflinks and turns it over in her palm. It does not hurt. She moves down through the drawers. She holds a pair of his socks without flinching. She runs her fingers along the pattern on his flannel shirt and feels only warmth, not pain. She wants to know if she can conjure up a picture of Aaron wearing these things and still not cry. But she can’t see him. It is as if with the concrete relics of his life in her hands there is no purpose in imagining an Aaron who isn’t here anymore. She can’t see him, and she does miss him. She hugs the shirt. Lacking empty cartons, she begins a give-away pile on top of the bed. She refolds the flannel shirt and smooths the wrinkles. On top of it she puts another shirt, and another. There are buttons missing—maybe at the bottom of the drawer?—she should sew them back on for the thrift shop women. She is glad she kept these things until now, and glad that she no longer needs to keep them. “Get rid of everything, fast. It will be so much easier for you that way. Otherwise, every time you come in this room the knife will turn in your stomach. Let me pack for you.” But Fraida didn’t let Danielle take anything. The pile on the bed grows. Fraida has to go out for some more cartons or she won’t have anywhere to sleep tonight. She would like to get a candle-holder and feather too, she decides. Such an inane custom, yet backed by three thousand years of history. If it’s a tradition then it can’t be called inane, she thinks. She drives to the grocery store, to the loading docks in the back, and helps herself to another carload of cartons. Instead of making the turn for home she continues down the main boulevard towards the freeway. What is so inane about a walk now and then in a neighborhood where nobody knows her? She parks her box-filled car near the ocean, near sunset, in a parking lot that is thinning out. She watches two young men in glistening black wetsuits strap their surfboards to the top of their car. Fraida sits with her elbows on the steering wheel. The sun is low enough to have its reflection scattered by the water, which looks golden. Fraida picks out a cluster of small dark shapes floating close to the sand—birds, so still and in synchrony with the waves’ cresting. Fraida is tired. How unexpected, she muses. She has never been tired on the brink of a walk. Yet now she is content sitting here, just looking, watching slow undulations “Oh, come,” she says to herself. She flings open the car door and gets out.

She breathes in the fishy air which rushes at her in stiff gusts. She walks into the wind. Her legs move slowly. . “Come,” she urges. There is a narrow, sand-strewn sidewalk running between the asphalt of the parking lot and the beach; she takes it south. The setting sun gnaws at the right corner of her right eye. She holds up her hand to blot it out.

There is no one on the beach. Fraida sees nothing but vacant sand, punctuated by aluminum cans, cigarettes, black-green seaweed fronds. There are some body surfers in the water, too far away to be seen clearly . A jogger thumps up from behind her and passes her, kicking up pinwheels of sand.

Another jogger approaches, this time towards Fraida. He trails a long leash behind him and a golden retriever, loping gracefully. “It is nice here,” Fraida says to herself. “Aaron should be here.”

She expects him to appear any minute. Maybe he is in the water? No, she doesn’t see anyone there now. Maybe on the sand, lounging on a towel? No. Climbing through the rocks, then, or gathering shell shards just off the sidewalk?

He is nowhere. Nowhere at all, she marvels. She just isn’t functioning today. Her legs so tired, her mind so unimaginative. She wants to conjure him up. She is lonely without him. For God’s sake, why can’t he be here?

She walks on. Fraida looks across the terrain and spies the highway far away to the left. Beyond it are shops with their signs lit. Yes, it is dark enough for the signs to be on. She turns around.

The red sun now rests on a wavering bed of haze just above the horizon. She walks slowly, too slowly. She tries to coax her legs to pick up the pace. But the harder she concentrates on going faster, the slower it seems she goes. The wind is strong, pushing her back. The weakness of her own muscles frightens her. She must have exerted herself too much earlier today with the cartons. That’s all, a simple explanation, she tells herself. The fear lingers, though.

“All right, on, on,” she says.
She gazes out to the ocean. How dark it has become. The red ball has vanished. Faint pink-gray streaks, like watercolors thinly applied to canvas, hang over the dark water. The sand has gone from rust to gray. The rock-strewn hill is almost black.

Above the sound of the whitecaps crashing is the pitpat of another set of footsteps, coming from in back of her. The footfalls come slowly, matching her own slow steps. Aaron at last! she thinks, and she whirls around. But it isn’t Aaron. All she can make out is a cloudy figure, about ten paces behind her. It is a man with his head bent down. He wears a great black coat.

She wishes he would pass her. She purposely slows her steps so that she barely creeps forward. “Come on then, pass.” She listens for the sound of his footsteps coming closer. But he keeps his distance.

“Oh, God, I’m going to die,” she thinks all at once. He is following her. He is here to do her harm. It is dark, and she is alone. How did it get so dark so fast? Where is the parking lot? She didn’t walk this far, did she? She must have passed the lot. No, she couldn’t have missed it Should she run? God, she can’t make her legs run. She tries to run, but she can’t. God! she thinks.

She plods forward. Suppose she were to stop in her tracks? Should she just stop? Let him come, do what He has in mind to do Perhaps he’ll be after only money. She has nothing with her. Let him see that and move on. Or should she scream? Perhaps there is still someone on the beach somewhere.

“Stop following me!” she is about to scream to the man in back of her, when she sees a light ahead. The parking lot. Just a few more steps and she’ll be there. And she will never do this again. If she doesn’t die tonight, she promises God, she will never be such a fool again. She doesn’t want to die.

What she wants is to live, to be alive with Aaron, and with Danielle small again, and with her own strong arms and legs again, being young and needed. But even without the rest, she wants to live.

She plods into the beam of amber light thrown down by the streetlamp in the parking lot. She rushes to her car, the only one left in the lot. She turns the key in the door, dives inside, and locks her door again.

The silence engulfs her. She had not realized during her walk how loud was the beating of the waves and the drumming of the wind against her ears. She looks out through the windshield at the amber parking lot and the complete blackness beyond. The man must have kept on walking. Thank God, she thinks, and she begins to sob.

hours, half the She slumps over the steering wheel and lets her tears fall, rapid-fire, into her lap. Aaron is the one making her cry. She grieves for him as if he died yesterday. He always took her everywhere—even to shul where women weren’t supposed to be—so why couldn’t he have taken her with him this time? What was she supposed to do without him? Who was she supposed to cook for and garden for? She moans, and the sounds she makes echo off of the cartons in the backseat. She sobs for hours, half the night.

When she is done, she starts the car. Her mind fills up with the minutia of the freeway: the green and white signs, the car ahead with its broken taillight, the exit ramp. At home she sees that the night isn’t half gone after all. It is only nine o’clock.

She takes a cheese sandwich and milk from the refrigerator, and eats and drinks.

In the bedroom she moves the stack of clothing from the top of her bed to the floor, and climbs between the covers.

Susan Grossa former journalist, is currently working on a collection of midrash about the wives of Lot and Job. She lives in Louisiana with her husband and two young Daughters.