Piano Bench

A short story

Wikimedia Commons

"Reading Woman," Louis Anquetin, 1890.

This is the year I get accepted into a PhD in English with a certificate in Jewish studies at the only university I applied to, in the Midwestern college town where I already live. The acceptance comes through on Valentine’s Day. My husband takes me out to dinner at a passable restaurant owned by the same people who run our local deli. (The deli itself is terrible. We think the owners use the restaurant profits to keep it afloat.)

###

Before I start the PhD, I must finish my master’s degree, so I drive three hours south to another Midwestern college town to turn in my master’s thesis, but also to tell my thesis adviser I’m sorry for being so hard to teach. I admit I was having health problems and prescribed-the-wrong-medication-for-bipolar problems, but don’t admit I was having people-think-my-daughter’s-cute-because-she-acts-too-young-because-something’s-up problems. I definitely don’t admit to marital problems.

###

My husband breaks our printer.

###

Of course I have noticed the president is evil. Of course his being evil is an anvil that sits on top of all the other anvils that sit on my chest, pressing me in the way they used to do to torture witches to death. (But I’m not a witch, no matter what my husband says.)

The president is so evil it’s become manifest in my body—at least, I assume that’s what I’m feeling, that phantom pain. Of course it can’t be some long-suppressed howl leaking out of my lungs and poisoning all it touches. My only setback is just that the president is evil.

I’m not sure we’re supposed to be telling my daughter about the evil president, both because it must be distressing to a six-year-old child to hear that America is fucked from the top down and because saying the president is evil out loud is so performative. “Our president is evil!” is the sort of announcement our senator makes on the news, or maybe tweets, but she’s just evil in a different way.

We’re in the van listening to NPR and before I can say to hold on, my husband dives right in and tells my daughter that the president likes to kill everybody, even kids. He does it by locking them in cages, my husband says.

###

My husband punches the wall in the hallway. Just a teeny dent, a chip in the industrial beige paint our apartment complex puts up to mask stains. He leans into my face and shouts and shouts, “Admit you were wrong!”—by the time the shouting is over, I forget what I admitted I was wrong about.

My husband sees discount Ben and Jerry’s sitting pretty in an endcap at our Kroger. When I say I don’t want it, he tells my daughter, “Mommy thinks she’s better than us,” so I begin to eat too much ice cream, even when I’m not hungry. I don’t enjoy it. I gain twenty pounds over the next two months.

###

May is spring, and spring here means it only snows every now and then. On a snowy May day, my old professor dies. I try to explain to my daughter, and she asks if the president killed him.

Again, I drive three hours south, where a Chabad rabbi says he respected my old professor’s commitment to anti-Zionism. I hug my old professor’s widow. I cry harder than I mean to, harder than the actual family, go out for drinks at a hipster bar with a former classmate (also married) who says he loves me, have multiple Moscow Mules, do not kiss him, sober up, drive north, play “Sky Full of Song” on a loop the whole time.

###

My husband tells me I’m a genius, I’m probably smarter than he is. He lays me out on the hallway carpet to crack my back. He’s been watching videos of chiropractors on YouTube.

He vacuums that carpet every week.

He always takes out the trash as well as the recycling, even when it’s snowing and our apartment complex hasn’t bothered to plow out the parking lot where the dumpsters sit.

He fights with racists on Twitter. He is an avowed feminist.

My friend tells me she’s getting married. She wants to be what we are, part of an exemplary unit, a model progressive couple.

My husband climbs into my daughter’s bunk bed every night and kisses her cheek.

“I love you, Daddy.”

“I love you, sweet bear.”

###

My husband calls me a genius, sure, but he also calls me stupid. He calls me stupid a lot. We’re both sitting with our laptops at the dining room table when my husband calls me stupid for the third day in a row, so I tell him the truth: we’re still married because my daughter loves him, not because I do.

He begins taking antidepressants, but it only gets him from being a huge dick all the time to being kind of a dick half the time. I’m checked out.

###

I start the PhD in autumn. My hip shoots bolts of pain up my spine and I fall while walking across a green expanse of lawn between the Jewish studies building and the English building. I go to a hospital and lie on a cold table in a creepy gray room to get a hydrocortisone shot in my hip, then a freak side effect makes me not sleep until I am hospitalized with hallucinations, voices that call out my name from the corner of every room, cages and cages.

I begin to take two hundred milligrams of trazodone every day. It’s not great for my coursework.

###

A literacy specialist informs me my daughter is really very dyslexic.

###

I mention to my husband the Lipton tea someone used to set out in the synagogue where I grew up. I assume the tea wasn’t for kids, but it was sitting on a table next to hot water every time I went to Hebrew school, and I was cold, and I needed an excuse to wrap my hands around something hot, so I taught myself to drink the tea when I was ten.

Saturday is our grocery-shopping-and-all-other-errands-and-family-movie-night day. As soon as kiddush is over in the synagogue where I go now (they only have fair trade organic non-Lipton tea), as soon as my daughter has eaten half her sweet noodle kugel and dropped the other half over a white plastic tablecloth in the social hall, we all hop in the van and drive to Kroger. My husband buys Lipton tea when I’m not looking, and he puts it away when I’m bringing our bags in from the van. He says nothing until I find the box of Lipton in the kitchen cabinets next to a jar of vegetarian chili, then he pinches my nose.

Is this so bad?

That night, after we finish our twentieth viewing of Frozen, it is time for my daughter to go to bed. My husband and I are exhausted from singing our way through the three-and-then-some hours of Saturday morning services the Conservative movement inflicts on its congregants, gossiping with a synagogue board member about the old rabbi, gossiping with the new rabbi about the Hebrew school, grocery shopping, a drugstore run for my husband’s antidepressants, and Frozen, which is an exhausting movie to watch twenty times. Because we are so done with this day, we hug and kiss my daughter in the den and ask if she can brush her own teeth and climb into her own bunk bed.

But my daughter doesn’t want to go to sleep until she gets a hug and a kiss in the bunk bed, not the den. Because something is wrong with her, has always been wrong with her, something other than dyslexia, she registers her objection by screaming as loud as she can.

My husband raises his voice to be heard over the screaming. “We already hugged and kissed you right here. There’s no difference.”

She says we ruined her life and she wants to die. This is a normal thing for her to say.

He says, “It’s nine o’clock already. Stop.”

She says she hopes we die, too. Maybe she’ll kill us. This is also a normal thing for her to say.

He says, “You’re the worst kid,” drags our kicking, biting child to her room (skipping the tooth brushing), and lifts her bodily into the bunk bed. I can only follow, because I’m not strong enough to drag and lift her anymore. Anyway, it hurts my hip.

“Huggy! Huggy!” she screams.

He says, “Fine, you want a hug? Here’s a hug,” then he stands on her bunk bed’s ladder and hugs her so tight, too tight, yanks her toward the edge of her bed and jams her shoulder on the metal safety bar.

She says, “You hurt me!”

He says, “No I didn’t.”

I say, “You did.” But saying that is not enough. I should have stopped him. I would have stopped him, but I’ve spent the past several years battling the sensation that I’m moving through a tub of vaseline.

My husband says, “I’m sorry,” and considers the matter closed.

###

I buy a new printer to replace the one my husband broke.

###

A yeast infection becomes a bacterial infection becomes another yeast infection ad infinitum, devours my vagina and labia (and anus). I swallow antibiotics so powerful they make me throw up until I hyperventilate until I word salad, so my husband drives me to the same creepy hospital where I got my hydrocortisone injection. He holds my hand while I say “I hate my challah dress” over and over and remember what it felt like to want him around.

My daughter is there, too, because we have nowhere to put her. The nurse goes to stick an IV in my arm to rehydrate me, but my veins are so dried out she can’t get the IV to work. It breaks, I scream. My daughter cries that I’m scaring her. “Please don’t let Mommy die here.”

My husband asks if he should take her home now and I say yes.

Nobody can sleep in an emergency room, under the thin hospital blankets in a bed that can bend every way except the one that makes a human being comfortable, in a room with an open door and beeping machinery. I wait several hours. A nurse comes to take my temperature, puts more water in my IV, swabs my vagina “just to check.” I wait several more hours until a doctor comes and says surprise! I don’t really have an infection on my vagina (and anus) anymore. The problem is the previous infections sensitized my nerves.

The sensitized nerves in my vagina (and anus) throb rhythmically in class while I learn about Theodor Herzl’s idea that the state should abolish itself. This throbbing is kind of nice because it distracts me from my hip.

I try the anti-candida diet; it helps, but not all the way.

###

My daughter somehow gets croup at age six and sits out two weeks of school. No babysitter will come near her. I drag her around campus, over the green lawn where I fell with my bad hip, into the stuffy conference rooms with their long brown tables where doctoral students go to prove they are smarter than each other and definitely did the reading. I sniff my daughter’s neck instead of being smarter than anybody, instead of pretending I did the reading.

The other students stare openly. My professors, however, feel bad enough for me that they pretend the small child talking to herself in a corner is not bothersome.

###

My husband breaks the lid to our trash can by punching it.

###

I drive three hours south one more time to visit my old professor’s widow, who says he left me all the books I want from his office. There’s a lot of books in his office, so many that I can’t see his desk or his floor. The books are mostly poetry, but I prefer prose.

My old professor’s widow says, “Please help me get rid of this shit.”

I pack seventy books into my car, even some poetry, but when I get home, I can’t work up the nerve to bring the books inside.

I leave them in the car for the rest of the year.

###

I take up rug hooking with a kit for a medium-size picture of a barn. My daughter feels good telling me which color yarn to use. I feel good about her feeling good. My great-grandmother (I knew her) used to hook framed squares with fluffy dogs and women holding baskets. Once she did the whole cushion on the piano bench at my parents’ house, so now when my parents play piano they sit on her yarn roses.

###

Celebrities announce that it’s sad when Central American children die or are put in cages. The celebrities expect to be hailed as revolutionaries for this insight.

I cry a lot when I think about the children who die or are put in cages, but I cry a lot in general. My crying might mean that I’m stressed or depressed or worried someone will put my daughter in a cage someday because of how she is. Or my crying might not mean anything.

I cry at my daughter’s elementary school talent show when another child sings “Castle on a Cloud” from Les Mis. I tear up at the latest Thor movie. I choke back my ugly snot when someone puts out peanut butter sandwiches and the peanut butter smell stinks up the English Department grad lounge. How do other people not understand that peanut butter is nasty? What a world.

###

Trazodone makes me not-hungry. I lose my ice cream weight. My husband asks every day if I think he’s gross and fat and that’s why I don’t want to have sex with him anymore, but it’s actually that he’s a bad person, plus my vagina (anus) hurts.

###

I decide I’ve angered G-d and go all in for Yom Kippur in hopes G-d can get over it. The day before, I sit on my bed hunched over my laptop in the dark and email people to apologize for everything, all of it, anything I may have done wrong for the past four years or more. A former friend who doesn’t speak to me anymore emails back. She’s never hated me but I should know someone else is writing a whole thinly veiled novel about how I was kind of a bitch in our master’s program. Fine.

For weeks other people email back to accept my apologies with what they call “unconditional love.” I want to shout: “Make it conditional! Tell me I’ve earned something!”

###

A group of Jewish senior citizens are shot by a conspiracy theorist while praying. I don’t check my phone Saturday mornings, so I have no idea until my daughter and I get home from our synagogue, where we went alone because I like to sneak us out the door while my husband is sleeping.

Everybody asks how I feel about old people being shot. The ones in the English Department ask to my face in the grad lounge, and the people I apologized to for Yom Kippur do it via email and text and voice messages and Facebook messenger and Instagram. I’m not sure what to say. At least the other Jewish studies students leave me alone, and I leave them alone—we offer each other that reprieve, our good manners.

###

The former friend who doesn’t speak to me anymore (except for the one email to let me know she loves me unconditionally and another to ask me how I feel about synagogue shootings) used to say the true measure of a person’s character is sex. I have different ideas about character, but every two weeks I fuck my husband, raw vagina and all. If I don’t, he creeps up behind me and strokes my neck and is sad when I flinch. He grabs my breasts while I try to wash dishes. During one of our no-sex weeks, he picks a fight because I asked him if he wanted to drop off my library books before we get my daughter from school but we already agreed not to do things in that order and I am a failure who is fucking up our day.

I get out of the car and walk. He circles back around the block, crying. “Please don’t go. Please never do that to me again.”

I get back in so we’ll be on time to pick up my daughter.

He asks me several times every morning for the next month why I am staring off into space. Do I want some tea? Is something wrong? Is something wrong? Is something wrong?

“I’m sorry you’re having such a rough time lately, honey.”

###

A child psychologist settles me on his bright yellow couch. There are board games on a coffee table between us. He says my daughter has a shockingly high IQ. He says she’s autistic but “high-functioning.” (Is he supposed to use that term? Is a first-grader who threatens my life really high-functioning?)

I feel vindicated at any autism diagnosis, high-functioning or not. So many doctors have told me my daughter’s outbursts are normal and to just ignore her when she’s bad and moms always have trouble with discipline and it must be especially hard for a young mom like me.

Later, at the kitchen table, I share the diagnosis with my husband, who asks me if I’m autistic, too, since there’s a lot going on with my brain.

###

I’m not mad life keeps going wrong even though I made good on Yom Kippur. I understand it’s not a bargain.

###

Right there at one of the long brown tables in the middle of a class I don’t care about, I realize I’m in love with someone from the university, which is funny because being in love with someone from the university is what my husband accuses me of all the time.

I know it won’t work because I’m married. Even if I divorced, nobody wants to help me raise a girl who can’t roll with the loss of routine, who can’t read, who takes up more room in my soul than romance ever could. Also, my vagina (anus) hurts.

Also, I’m hideous.

Anyway, I genuinely like this guy as a friend. We’ll be friends. Friends are good.

###

On Hanukkah I call my grandma, who suggests I gave my daughter autism by spoiling her.

###

I’m tired of using a broken trash can. I buy a new trash can. A metal one. The day on which I buy the trash can is a good day. Is my life turning around?

###

My PhD adviser can’t chair his conference panel. We decide I will chair his panel. This is actually a good thing for a first-year PhD student. I tell the guy I’m in love with and he makes a visible effort to make me think he’s impressed.

I’m excited, but then my car breaks in the city where the conference is held. My AirBnb falls through when I realize the bedroom doors only lock on the outside, so I have to cross the street and pay to sleep in a hotel.

The day of the panel, my cousins in California let everybody know my great-aunt died. I liked her. I would have gone to her funeral, but they’ve already buried her.

###

I turn in work late and get two incompletes for the semester.

###

Over winter break, we go to Baltimore to see my parents, who have a dog. My daughter asks if any people eat dog food, and my mom says yes, because they’re silly and love the taste. My husband asks if going for a walk here will get him shot. I sit at the piano and read a study of Birthright as a sub-subgenre of diaspora tourism.

###

My guts are always exploding. I shit in my parents’ guest bathroom and it takes at least ten minutes, fifteen. Twenty. I get up, but not really, because my legs have fallen asleep without me realizing, so asleep they’re useless. I fall on the tile holding crumpled shit-streaked toilet paper in my hand.

The anvils on my chest are no longer phantoms. Mornings, I get sharp twinges on the right side. If I sigh too deeply, a bruised feeling like someone hit me in my sleep. I wonder if my husband hit me in my sleep. (He’s never hit me when awake, just raised his hand, but he’s sneaky. Maybe he does it when I can’t notice or remember.)

I’m more tired than anybody who has ever claimed to be tired.

###

My mom sits with me in her living room, which is the size of my whole apartment. It has hardwood floors, poorly insulated windows, and the piano. Here, she delivers some news about her health. It turns out she has a genetic disorder called Ehlers-Danloss, so I probably do, too, and that’s probably why my hip and vagina (and anus) stopped working and I can’t digest food and I’m bipolar and have chest pain and my legs fall asleep.

Fortunately for me, the true measure of a person’s character is how they respond to pain—in the chest and elsewhere. (I believe this and not the sex thing my former friend said, which is stupid.) I can take miles of pain—or leagues, cubits. I invite everybody, including the master of the universe, to measure me anytime. There’s nothing here but personal growth, no progress without some real bullshit.

Is G-d busy? Is that it? If He were paying attention, I would prove myself worthy.

###

In a chilly enclosed porch, my daughter wraps her arms around my parents’ dog’s neck and says, “Look! The doggy likes me! Doggy! Doggy! Take our picture please.”

This doggy clearly does not like my daughter. Still, I get my cell phone out and snap a photo. In it, the dog strains away from my daughter, toward freedom.

I say, “Of course the doggy likes you. Everybody likes you.”

“And I like them and the color pink and eating off the floor of the car.”

I make her let the dog go for a tickle war. The dog leaves the room because we’re shrieking.

###

My husband fucks me in my parents’ guest bedroom on Christmas. We’re all waiting for the delivery guy to bring sushi. While my husband fucks me, I think about what it might be like if the guy I’m in love with ever fucks me, but then I worry I might call out his name and make my husband angry, so I stop thinking about the guy I’m in love with. Instead I think: The ceiling paint is flaking. My husband turns me over and I think: This pillow smells nice.

I think: What kind of man believes that’s a real orgasm?

I think: Stop biting me.

I think: I deserve this because of the thing with the bunk bed. That time he hit her in the face for throwing a tantrum at a gas station, and I did threaten to drive home without him, I did do that, but I did not immediately divorce him and am therefore not a good mother. I’m not a good mother at all.

I think: I don’t have enough money. I don’t have health insurance. I don’t have childcare. I don’t have what I’d need to leave. Maybe when she’s older.

I think about interminable Midwestern winters, even though we’re in Baltimore right now and not the Midwest, and I think about a picture book of my daughter’s that explains hibernation—watercolors of gentle bears asleep in a cave until it’s safe to come out again. While my husband bolts and shakes over me, I think about Romeo and Juliet, the poison that stops the human heart but not forever. My husband goes still with the power of his own climax; this is when I think about G-d, who made us in His image and has been disappointed ever since. His flood, all those who drowned, and the raven, no, the dove who is assuredly coming for me.

Foam-capped wave after foam-capped wave after foam-capped wave—then, where nobody would expect it, the scrubby tip of some mountain. (Everest? Cho Oyu? Sinai?) A sprouting twig, which the dove takes in its beak.

“I know this sounds crazy,” the dove will say, dropping the twig at my feet. “Trust. Trust. Land isn’t far.”

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