Sunday, November 04, 2007

congratulations on your future engagement

(cautionary note: as they say on noggin, that famed preschooler network, 'this is me, this is me; this is me and my energy.' this post reveals more about me than perhaps is wise, and i debated whether to leave it up. in the end i decided to keep it because i think even an emotion that is unworthy or unbecoming of us is still legitimate. still, reader discretion is advised.)

a girl from high school called me up today, while i was studying for a jewish history midterm on my bed.

i saw the number and did a double take - we hadn't spoken more than a word or two in passing in almost three years. not that we fell out or anything; she was the kind of girl i used to stay up all night talking to on shabbatons, that i would write long, long six-part letters in sticky notes to during class. she was one of the few girls i used to give my poetry to in high school (miraculously, she survived). in many ways, she had been my guide.

"perel!" she clicked when i answered the phone. "tell me everything about life. tell me about school. tell me about work. i'm soooooo bad for not calling you..."

this took me by surprise. it's my experience that a person calling you for the first time in three years generally has a good reason. and truthfully, i didn't begrudge her either the absence or the call. it was as much my fault as hers that i hadn't made an effort to keep up with her, and it hadn't even bothered me as much as i might have thought it would; hers was a friendship which shaped my high school years, but seemed sort of anchorless without the common ground of high school and shared experience to hold us together. and i knew how awkward it can be to need something from someone you haven't spoken to in awhile. still, i warmed to the sound of her voice, falling into our old conversational patterns like i hadn't yet left for stern.

eventually, as i ultimately knew it was bound to, our talk moved toward our engaged classmates. she was buzzy with excitement. "can you believe it?" she breathed over the phone. "one girl's wedding this week, and just last week another girl got engaged! doesn't it blow your mind?"

i had to confess that it did not blow my mind. like most beis yaakov (or wannabe beis yaakov) girls, we had had a running bet in my class who was going to get married first. the two currently engaged had been in my top two; therefore i considered myself to 2 and nothing. i asked her how she felt about it.

"happy and excited," she replied promptly. "excited out of my mind. how about you?"

i hesitated. and then, i think, i proceeded to make a series of mistakes.

we had been talking for a little while by this point, and i was so glad to be speaking to her again. she is a very sweet and forgiving person, and in high school she always managed to draw my confusion and objections out of me through long, delicate probing. i hadn't been a person to speak my mind, but to skulk off quietly on the edge of the field at recess, i think because even i didn't always understand what was bothering me. and she would take me by the hand and patiently lead me back to the circle where the other girls were sitting, cross-legged, picking dandelions and grass and talking.

so, forgetting the three years that separated us, i said, "i feel like it's happening too quickly."

there was a frown in her voice. "happening too quickly? what do you mean, happening too quickly?"

i said in a rush: "well i know that they're very capable girls and their parents checked the guys out and i'm sure they'll be happy and fine and everything, but you know, i just feel like there's so many layers to these girls and they're getting engaged to people after two weeks, how can they know..." i couldn't finish, unsure of where i was going. "don't you feel like it's a little sudden?" i asked lamely.

"no," she said, her voice surprisingly firm. "i don't think it's sudden at all. that's the way they do it. it's very chok-chok."


"i mean, it makes more sense to do it this way. in the old days that's how they did it. the parents check them out very thoroughly and make sure it's going to line up, but it isn't like it's emotional or anything, that it has to take months. you find out if it's going to work and there isn't all this time wasting. if you're worried that he doesn't know the girl - it will be a pleasant surprise for that lucky chusun, that's all." she sounded stricken. "it's logical, perel. don't you remember how that girl used to turn around to us in class and always say how much easier it was in the old days? it isn't about emotion."

i could have kicked myself. i knew this already. the lectures came back to me over her voice; long afternoons of married teachers intoning: 'what ruins american marriages today? disneyland. everyone thinks they're going to have a marriage like disneyland, like hollywood in the movies. marriage is not about disneyland. that's why when you make shidduchim...'

and suddenly it hit me: the girl on the phone was completely right. my classmates didn't need to date forever, because they were not waiting to 'fall in love' with someone. ('fall in love', i remembered one of my teachers enunciating contemptously. 'does that sound like the way G-d would want you to plan your future? where's the intelligence in that?') these girls getting married didn't need to love their husbands at the onset. so four weeks or six weeks, what did it matter? it wasn't so much about the individual for them as what he represented and what he had the potential to be.

blinking, disconcerted, i resettled the phone on my shoulder and stared at my reflection in the mirror on the back of my bathroom door: sweatshirt, pajama skirt, notes spread out over the floor, desk and bed. "yeah," i said vaguely. "i guess you're right."

there was a hint of dissatisfaction now in the girl's voice as she spoke, a little bit of distance, as though she too was unsettled by my non-ecstastic reaction, but she went on bravely anyway. "on a related note, i was talking to one of the other girls and we think that it would be a great idea for the whole class to do something nice for each bride. you know, like to have a gift from the whole class for everyone. like a little tehillim or something. don't you think that would be sweet?"

i shrugged. "yeah, that sounds like a good idea."

"right. i was checking up the prices on comes to about twenty-four dollars a person. you don't think that's too much, do you?"

feeling cheap, i said, "it depends. if that's the only thing i'm getting them, then no, i don't think so. if i was going to bring them another gift it might be a little high."

"no no no. i don't mean twenty-four dollars every time. i mean twenty-four dollars TOTAL. the way i figure it is like this. there's twelve of us, right? and each tehillim costs thirty-six dollars. but if we buy all twelve of them at the same time, we get a discount, and each tehillim will only be twenty-four dollars. then it would come to two dollars per girl, or twenty-four for everyone."

i have never been good at math, and part of me started thinking at this point, 'ok, so roughly the price it would cost if each girl went and bought her own tehillim.' but slowly i zeroed in on what i really wasn't getting. " want to buy twelve sets of tehillim now?"

"yes. preferably this week."

"so...we'll have them before people get engaged," i said, trying to keep up.

"exactly." she sounded relieved. "because you know how impossible it would be to try and keep track of it for every single girl once you have kids and a house to run. it would just be impossible, perel. and you know what would happen, would be the girls who got married last would have nothing done for them, and we just didn't think that was very nice."

i sat on my bed, staring at my reflection.

why is it that everything keeps feeling like middle school? aren't experiences supposed to widen and deepen as you get older? yet somehow even vast, life-forming things like marriages sound and feel the same as surprise birthday parties or class ditch days to me. sitting on the pine needles while the other girls danced around our measly bonfire on lag b'omer, watching them, transfixed, wanting to be part of their dance, knowing i would only embarrass myself. the girl on the phone came over to me and tugged me up that day.

"come on, perel," she said, a mischevious glint in her eye. "we can't dance unless it's the whole class."

"i don't know how to dance," i said, smiling apologetically.

she waved a hand dimissively. "well then we'll have to teach you, won't we?"

and for the rest of the night she stood with me, gluing my eyes to a line, illustrating with such patience and kindness how to move your feet over and across and from side to side. for hours the two of us away from the dancing, her moving so gracefully, my attempts to imitate her completely fruitless. "i can't do it," i said at the end. "i guess my body just doesn't move that way."

"it does," she insisted. "one day you'll get it. you'll see."

i look the same now as i did then. i don't know if it's because i haven't changed much, or if it's because it simply hasn't been that long. four years, five years. her voice sounds the same; it has that same warm lightness.

and it's like her to think of those outside the circle. why does it have to sound so much like the last girls picked for machanayim? there you could find me, standing awkwardly alone between the two huddles of girls, gawky and tall in my slumpy turtleneck and pleated skirt. did you befriend me out of pity? a part of me wonders, but i feel ashamed. it is kindness to think of others. it doesn't have to be pity.

her conspirational whisper, next to me in the grass: "we're all going to donate two dollars for this girl's surprise birthday party. you know, the summer birthdays. it's not fair, they never get parties, so they're never going to be expecting it. we'll spell it out in her english binder." an elbow in the ribs. "don't you think that's a good idea?"

yes. yeah, that'll be fun. that's a great idea.

twelve sets of tehillim, waiting in the basement! waiting for the day! isn't that a good idea? waiting for--


no, it isn't.

"i don't think so," i said. "i don't think it's a good idea."

distracted. "what do you mean, it isn't a good idea? what's the matter with it?"

"why don't we do it as the occasion arises. i like getting everyone a tehillim, i think that's nice, but you know. there's no need to buy twelve of them now. why don't we buy for the two girls who are already engaged, and as other girls get engaged, we'll buy some for them."

"but do you think that we should all have to pay twelve dollars a person more now, and have to collect the money again every time?" she asked patiently. "that's not an easy thing to do. people are going to have kids..."

"we'll worry about the kids when we get there. but you don't know how long it's going to be. maybe i'm a little superstitious, i don't know what it is. i just don't like the idea of having them pre-bought, sitting there, waiting for something which...which might be a long time in coming for some girls..."

i realized at this point that i should not say the rest of what i was thinking. but i had already said enough. for the first time, the voice on the other end of the phone was completely silent.

when she spoke again, it was subdued, almost chilly. "perel," she said, "you are my friend, and you know i respect your opinion and i'm always interested to know what you think. but i don't understand...i don't understand why you are so negative about this. aren't you happy that they're getting married? it's something to be happy about, not worried. it seems silly to wait to buy every set of tehillim separately when it's going to cost more. i don't understand why you're...saying the things you're saying. what are you so afraid of? we're all going to get married sooner or later, right?"

we said our goodbyes, made arrangements for the money, and hung up our phones. business concluded. my studying lay across my lap, waiting sadly for me to attend to it. but i was still staring at the mirror on the door, the smooth feel of my phone between my fingers.

i could almost see her if i squinted, reaching down to me in the firelight, pulling me up, the smile on her face. explain it to me. teach me the song they're all singing. no, i can't strum to that. i don't know the tune.

we're all going to get married sooner or later, right?

i couldn't bring myself to say it, even though the words were so loud in my head:

but what if we don't?


Anonymous Safranit said...

I think this will be you in a bunch of years...... (and I mean this only in the best of ways)

10:26 PM  
Blogger Madd Hatter said...

Wow. I think you were completely right. Even if everyone does end up getting married, im yirtzeh Hashem, how special does it feel to get a tehillim that someone had to stick in a basement for several years because they're too busy to actually get you the gift at the time of your simcha. seems mechanical and a little too planned for me.

6:18 AM  
Anonymous Eees said...

Another thing: Who is going to be the "Keeper of the Tehillim?" What if that person moves? Things get lost during a move. I think it is absurd to expect people to chip in now for EVERYONE!
And, yet another thing,what happens if Chas V'Shalom a girl gets married, divorced, and then remarries? Does she have to give back and then re-receive the Tehillim? Or is she now entitled to two?
I think you are right for speaking up to this friend.

9:30 AM  
Anonymous Safranit said...

Oooh it looks like the link I included didn't come through...try again:

9:44 AM  
Blogger PsychoToddler said...

Nothing about this surprises me. You and your sibs were brought up a little differently than these girls. You have different expectations, different ambitions.

These girls are (for the most part) very happy with the trajectory they (or their parents) have chosen and you don't need to feel bad for them.

I say for the most part because there are a few for whom this didn't work out at all and who married young and divorced young. And you know who they are.

But on the whole the system works for them. So don't feel too bad.

It wouldn't work for you. You know why. I've always felt that you and your brothers and sisters would have your own unique talents and should be free to explore them. I expect that you'd want to take time to define who you are and what you can do before you eventually are defined as someone's wife or mommy.

Nothing is wrong with wanting to get married and have kids. You'll get there when you're ready. But I don't feel there is such a rush.

I don't ever want any of you kids to one day look at your spouses or kids and think, "I gave up my dreams for you."

But then, you have dreams. We allowed you to dream them. So don't feel bad for yourself either. You're just on a different path. In the end, though, I would hope you're all going to end up in the same place.

9:46 AM  
Blogger Stubborn and Strong said...

brrrrr.... how could people marry a person after knowing them for 2-6 weeks? Look, good for people who thinks it works for them but that is not my path that's for sure. So you perel also have different path and be proud of it because it is YOUR path not your friend's path. You are right, not everybody married, she expect all her classmate be married in less few years but what happen a woman married at 30!! which does happen! I am very proud of you to stand up of your friend with your belief!!

3:33 PM  
Blogger Chaikers said...

o relish, my little girlie! ur toooo gooood a shmush, u will one day find the shmusher that fits with you. No worries! Plus, if nothing else, there is always my brother! :-)
I luv ya perel!
Anyways with the tehillim, "man plans and G-d laughs" yknow!! what happens, happens! If it's meant to be, it's meant to be. and so pay or not, it really is just a gift.

3:40 PM  
Blogger SJ said...

As always, I am wowed by your writing. You conveyed your emotions so clearly and evocatively...and I understand them. But as everyone else has said, you are on a different path and it is a good path, and the way you stand out makes you you.

5:03 PM  
Blogger Rafiki said...

I find it interesting that we all seem to have that awkward social problem. (we meaning us siblings)

7:49 PM  
Blogger Erachet said...

I agree with everything you said here. I'm not going to elaborate because I'll just be repeating your sentiments. You definitely have a good point about the tehillim, also. If a girl takes longer to get married and her tehillim is just sitting in someone's basement, that person is going to be so aware that her friend is not yet married and it can be uncomfortable and that's just so unnecessary.

7:58 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Fudge - I loved this post. As SJ said, you express yourself with a certain clarity of emotion that is often so hard to attain. Your story is such a simple one, yet I think it conveys so much about your mixed emotion towards your old friend, towards your class as a whole, and towards the different path that you decided to take. Thank you for your thoughts.

8:46 PM  
Blogger the apple said...

It's a disturbing thought, isn't it.

7:20 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I have to say your friend's idea is a bad one. It is an ayan hara, and is putting unnecessary pressure on the girls in your class. Is there a teacher or a rabbi you can talk to who can talk to this classmate to set her straight?

6:21 PM  
Blogger fudge said...

glad you asked, anonymous. she talked with the principal of our high school, who told her there was no problem and it sounded like a great idea. the girl actually called me back later to relate this to me in hopes that it would change my mind.

9:15 PM  
Blogger PsychoToddler said...

You should contribute primarily for the purpose of keeping your bridge open with this girl and your former classmates. There's little to be gained by offending them, and as you admit she has put out more than a little for you in the past.

I think the whole idea is ridiculous, personally, but it's not a lot of cash at stake.

What I find more disturbing is her inability to truly understand that you are not a homogenious bunch, that not all of you are in such a rush to become Stepford wives.

6:50 AM  
Blogger fudge said...

i ended up contributing for the two girls currently engaged, but not the whole class. right? wrong?

i give up.

7:28 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I got the summary of this post wrong when I related it to (irony) my husband, who said that embarrassing people by reminding them that they took a longer time to get married than others was "not in the Torah".

Certainly in the Torah there is both Rachel and Leah. There is romantic love, and if Leah is not totally unloved, there is the kind of love which comes from a person simply being family. That kind of love may not even encompass appreciation of things that person does for you, such as bearing you six sons. At the end of his life Yaakov regrets that Rachel is not buried in the Cave of Machpelah--that the romantic love could not be made permanent. But Yaakov's love for Rachel is reflected in all the romantic attachments to G-d which G-d remembers favorably for us.

I actually have a story. My great-grandmother, who I am named after, the daughter of a well-respected rabbi, ran away to America for love. Her branch of the family and that of the three brothers who went to Palestine are the only ones left after the war. Also, because she was in America, she could sponsor her cousin, Rabbi Isaac Avigdor, who married us, to come here.

7:57 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

(This flight to America was before World War I)

8:03 PM  
Blogger RaggedyMom said...

You know my thoughts on this. BUT, I would agree with your dad that at this point, it's probably better to just peel of a $20 than it is to be thought of from here on in as "Perel-the-only-one-who-didn't-go-along-with-the-tehillim-idea". Your real name sounds a lot better than that.

It's only worth trying to prove a point to those who will get it. As long as there's a mutual respect on the part of all of you to be who you each are, this is probably a time to acquiesce.

8:25 PM  
Anonymous Rochel Leah said...

Yasher koach.

Perel, your writing is so insightful!

What is so ironic about this situation is that this "buy now, get engaged later!" girl who called you would never force you to buy into a buy-ahead baby shower, or something of the sort. To me it is not that different...Gd forbid, but let's not count our simchas before they...hatch?

BTW, please do not start worrying about whether or not you will get married and me, if I could, I would love to get the time I have wasted worrying about that back!

9:12 PM  
Blogger RaggedyMom said...

Rochel Leah, you make a really good point about the baby shower thing. I hadn't thought of it that way, but that makes a lot of sense.

8:37 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

safranit--have you noticed that bad4shidduchim is 21? Not exactly a "bunch of years" older. The big difference is the surroundings, not the age...

6:47 PM  

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