This short story appeared in the Fall 2013 issue of Tulane Review and Issue 9 of Serving House Journal (www.servinghousejournal.com/sturmplague.aspx).
The Plague of Gingy
Dovid Raviv had never intended to bring any sort of shame to himself or his family. On the contrary, he had always believed himself to be the kind of person who would one day be known as a man of honor and wisdom. From an early age, he used his intelligence and skills of persuasion to win the esteem of both adults and peers. His teachers at the Bait Avraham Yitzchok Yeshiva in Jerusalem often called his parents to commend them on raising such a fine Ben Torah. His grasp of the Talmudic texts was exemplary, and the questions he posed showed great promise, the signs of true scholarly potential.
At the age of twenty-two, he began dating with the intention of finding a wife. Unlike most of his friends, he was accustomed to speaking with girls. All through his adolescence he had surreptitiously participated in flirtations with young women, meeting them on the public buses or on the curb in front of the cinema as they waited to view films that in his circle were considered off-limits. He told jokes to make them laugh, attempting to convince them that he was not the straitlaced Orthodox boy he appeared to be. Occasionally he was able to convince a blossoming, wide-eyed innocent to grant him a kiss on the cheek or a parting embrace, and this he viewed as a victory. These girls giggled and batted long eyelashes as they stood admiring his sapphire eyes, which smiled quizzically as he spoke. But then the bus would arrive at a stop or the ticket holders’ line would move inside, and he would be left alone, with a waft of strawberry musk cologne and a longing that made his body ache.
At twenty-three he chose his wife, a stunning dark-haired nineteen-year-old with smoldering chestnut eyes and a figure so shapely that it could not be hidden beneath the modest clothes she wore. She was not the wealthiest girl to be suggested to him, nor the most highly educated, but she was by far the most pleasing to the eyes, and certainly of a kind temperament. “I’ve got brains and education enough for both of us,” he told his mother of his decision, “and if need be, I could leave the yeshiva and work some day, but where will I ever find a blossom so pleasant and gentle. As the Talmud says, what is inside is like the outside—and with Malca, both are beautiful.”
Less than two years later, it was hard for him to recall what wind had extinguished the flame. The youthful light that used to fill her eyes had been replaced with something flat and empty, and her melancholy seemed to seep into every crevice of their life, coloring it a charcoal gray. While he had always been adept at charming young women, Dovid now felt impotent when it came to Malca, for nothing he did brought laughter to her eyes or a curl to her lips.
Never being one to share his troubles with others, he began taking long walks, hoping for a solution to manifest. One summer day as he meandered through the winding paths of Mount Hertzl, a solution appeared at his side. In Israel they would call her a gingy, but Dovid believed this buxom strawberry blonde from Baltimore who smiled easily and laughed too often must surely have been heaven-sent.
“Why are Orthodox men all so conventional?” she mused.
“I must be honest and say that I find them difficult myself. It’s not easy to live in a small religious community. Even in Jerusalem, sometimes I question whether it’s worth all the sacrifice to be cloistered with the closed-minded.”
“Exactly!” She beamed up at him, gently brushing her long ginger mane back off her shoulders, a few stray curls falling against her freckled nose. She suggested they sit down for a moment on a bench in the shade. “Hope,” she said, and he looked puzzled. “My name, it’s Hope.”
He laughed out loud and extended his hand. “Dovid,” he said, waiting to see if she would shake his hand, or if even this was not something that was done in Hope’s world. To his delight, not only did she extend one hand, but she used both of her hands to hold his own in a jolly embrace that he had seen only in pictures of American politicians.
She leaned back against the bench and stretched out her legs, exposing the bare skin of her calves beneath a denim skirt. When the gentle Jerusalem breeze sent several strands of hair into her eyes, she smoothed it behind her ear, exposing a line of five silver looped earrings that ran up her earlobe.
“I’ve never seen these sorts of earrings, at least not up close.” He leaned forward and glanced down the immodestly low-cut blouse into a hidden treasure of white lace. “They look great on you,” he whispered, almost touching her ear.
Hope saw his hesitation. “Oh, you can touch them if you’re curious. It won’t hurt me. I’ve had them since my identity crisis in college. I left Judaism behind for a summer and lived on an Ashram in Massachusetts, doing yoga and meditation, eating a vegetarian diet—and I pierced my ear. I actually used to have a nose ring too, but my mother made me take it out. Here…” She pointed to a spot on the right side of her rounded nose. “You can still just about make out the scar.”
Dovid leaned in toward Hope, examined her nose, and then ran his trembling fingers up along the row of silver loops. When the row ended, his fingers traced the rest of her ear. As his hand met the flesh of her neck, she exhaled deeply, and he knew that he had found the answer.
Things progressed rapidly after that. He offered to drive her back to her hotel, and she invited him up to her room. Once he knew that Hope was definitely going to take him to her bed, he was impatient to have her. He found himself pulling the buttons of her blouse with such force that one flew across the room.
“I’m on the pill,” she whispered. “I don’t suppose you brought condoms.”
“No,” he said, placing his mouth over hers so that she would say nothing more. He didn’t bother removing his own clothing or even her skirt—he was a married man there on urgent business, and once he made his way inside of her, he paid little attention to whether or not she was also enjoying his movements. When her high-pitched moans began to reach him behind his wave of motion, he could contain himself no longer.
Once finished, he sat up on the edge of the bed smiling broadly. Hope wrapped her legs around him and kissed the back of his neck. “I’m here for the rest of the week if you’d like to do any more sightseeing.”
“Oh, just until the end of the week?” A look of disappointment fell across his face. “I’m leaving tonight for Eilat; it’s really a shame.” It was a lie that flowed like honey from his lips.
That night as his wife served him his dinner, she leaned in close and mouthed, “Tonight is my mikvah night.”
He knew that according to Jewish law, the mikvah visit should never be postponed or delayed, and it was always followed by marital intimacy. He anxiously considered whether or not he would be able to perform yet a second time in the same day, but then brushed the worry aside. He was a star pupil, an overachiever; of course he’d be able to perform. He remembered the sweet mikvah nights of their first year, when his young bride was eager—trembling at his touch, waiting with anticipation as he chose his mouth’s next point of contact. That night as Malca and Dovid performed the marital act that was expected, Dovid tried desperately to block out the memory of the freckled nose and orange locks that seemed to be mocking him in the darkness.
It was five days later that the symptoms began. Dovid noticed a burning sensation on Shabbat and attributed it to the fact that he hadn’t bathed that day. After reciting Havdalah, the candlelit ceremony bidding farewell to the Sabbath and welcoming in the new week, he excused himself to the bathroom and showered beneath a pounding spray of hot water, soaping and re-soaping his genitals in an attempt to wash away his discomfort.
In the morning he walked groggily from his bedroom to the kitchen and was jolted awake by the itching and pain in his groin. His heart began pounding as he realized that this ailment could very well be his punishment, a plague to teach him the error of his ways. He had never experienced such discomfort and had no friends in whom to confide his symptoms and ask advice. He pounded the counter with his fist, furious—first with Hope for carrying such a disease, and secondly with himself for not thinking to take the proper precautions.
Panic set in as he realized that he might very well have passed his affliction on to Malca. In that case, what would he tell her? How could he possibly explain his actions? Could there be any other explanation for his discomfort? Would the medical clinic tell her the truth? What then?
He stood in the kitchen staring at the sink, his mind racing, perspiration gathering on his face and neck. When Malca padded into the room, he nearly jumped out of his skin. “How are you feeling?” he asked with lowered eyes.
“Fine,” she responded as she set a kettle of water on the stovetop and pulled a loaf of bread from the cupboard.
Dovid tiptoed around his wife, afraid that his actions might alert her to his condition, or worse—that she would show signs of it herself. His day passed painfully slowly as he hoped and prayed for healing—healing that was elusive.
Waking the next morning with the same symptoms, he made his way to the neighborhood medical clinic. With each step he felt the inseam of his pants scraping against his manhood, sending a burning sensation through him. He stopped several times to try to rearrange himself to create less friction, but there was no escaping his clothing. During his prayers that morning, he had again asked God to bring him healing, but thus far his prayers had not been answered.
As he walked into the waiting room chewing nervously on a fingernail, Dovid found that he was not alone. Both his wife and his kindhearted neighbor, Nate Horowitz, were at the far end of the room. The two, seated across from one another in orange plastic chairs, were engaged in a serious conversation, and neither one glanced up as he entered.
He noticed Malca shifting uncomfortably in her chair, arranging and rearranging the beige twill skirt beneath her. He knew then that his worst fear had been realized. She, too, had contracted the disease and would now question him about the source of their plague. His heart pounded against his rib cage, and he was about to slip back out of the clinic’s front door when he observed something unusual in his neighbor’s behavior.
Nate moved uneasily in his chair, rubbing the inside of his left thigh and pulling on the fabric of his black pants as if he were attempting to free himself from the polyester fibers.
Dovid’s eyes widened with understanding. If Dovid’s curse had come courtesy of Hope, and if he transmitted it to Malca on her mikvah night, then Nate must have caught it from… Was it possible? His Malca had been unfaithful? But that would explain everything. And it would also mean that this terrible situation was not even his fault! After all, his affair was only a desperate search for comfort in response to her infidelity, her sin! He had only been reacting to his wife’s desertion. It was all beginning to make sense. Or perhaps Malca had contracted the plague from Nate, and Dovid had gotten it from her! Then his infidelity was totally inconsequential!
Dovid cleared his throat loudly, causing them both to turn. Each one took the opportunity to squirm against the orange plastic that cupped their bottoms.
“How did you know to find me here? Is something wrong?” The lines of worry that had begun to settle across Malca’s forehead seemed to deepen with each word.
“Your questions are ones that have Talmudic depth. Who knows why the Holy One brought me here to this clinic at this particular moment, to find the two of you squirming in your chairs, pulling at yourselves as if you’ve both been visited by a Russian whore.” Nate rose from his chair and tried to interrupt, but Dovid simply raised his voice. “Nate, is this why you couldn’t eat lunch with us last Shabbat? Was it too uncomfortable for you to sit at my Shabbat table and eat my food when you had intimate knowledge of my wife?”
“Have you gone mad?” Malca was on her feet, standing between the two men. Her chestnut eyes burned with outrage. “There’s nothing between Nate and me! We happened to arrive here together, and I was just talking with him about his wife’s migraines—she gets them like me—that’s all!” Turning to face Nate, she said, “Please forgive…”
Dovid interrupted. “He should forgive? You’re looking the wrong way. I’m the one from whom you need to seek forgiveness! Your behavior is grounds for divorce!”
“Dovid, please! Lower your voice. Whatever problem I am here for,” she blushed crimson, “I can assure you it has no relationship to Nate. I am a religious woman. How could you suggest such a thing?”
He pushed Malca aside so that he could look into Nate’s eyes. “Nate, tell Malca why you’re here; then maybe she’ll understand.”
“Fine. If this will settle it. It’s a bit embarrassing.”
“I bet,” spat Dovid.
“Last Shabbat I went with my family to visit my sister-in-law who lives in Safed. That is why we were unavailable. We took a long walk in the afternoon, down the rocky slopes, and I foolishly slipped and scraped my legs on some rocks and thorns. I thought nothing of it, but as the days wore on, I noticed there was an infection. I need antibiotics. It’s truthfully quite uncomfortable.”
“Hah! What a story,” mocked Dovid. “Let’s see it.”
“What?” Nate was incredulous.
“Malca, avert your eyes. I want to see it.”
“Dovid, you and I have been neighbors for several years, but I’ll not stand here in the clinic and lower my pants for you!”
“Why not! If you’ve got nothing to hide and if it will clear my wife’s good name, then I see it as your duty. The Talmud says you should run to help your fellow Jew.”
“Unfortunately I think the best way I could help my fellow Jew would be to drive you to the psychiatric hospital.” Noticing Dovid shaking his leg and fingering his inner thigh, he added, “Tell us why you’re here again?”
Infuriated, Dovid began pulling at the waistband of Nate’s slacks. The two struggled for a moment before Nate freed himself and then in total exasperation raised his hands in the air. “If this is the only way to end this foolishness, then what do I care.” In one fluid motion he unbuttoned his pants and lowered the zipper, releasing his trousers to his ankles.
Malca couldn’t help but look, as she had never seen a man, other than her husband, in his underwear. Both Dovid and Malca recoiled in disgust. The infection on the outside of his right thigh and the inside of his left was hideous to look at.
A nurse with short, bleached blond hair and a lab coat sauntered into the room and chuckled at the scene. She shook her head and said, “This is something that regretfully was left out of my Jewish education. Rabbis, are you trying to make a determination about whether or not a female nurse can treat such a wound?” She eyed the infection on Nate’s legs. “I’d say yes. What do you think, madam?” she asked, glancing at Malca.
Malca covered her mouth to prevent the others from seeing her smile. Nate’s legs were paler than anything she might have imagined, and they reminded her of the partially plucked chickens her mother would toss into the sink for Malca to de-feather before transforming them into a rich Shabbat stew.
Nate quickly raised his pants, muttering, “I have a crazy man for a neighbor,” and followed the nurse down the corridor toward an examination room. He paused midway down the hall, turned on his heels, and addressed Malca. “I’m sure that the reason he is here, his plague, it has nothing to do with you. You have my sympathy.”
Malca bit her bottom lip and averted her eyes. She didn’t want him to see the depth of her sudden understanding of the situation. She eased her way back into an orange chair, and Dovid struggled into one directly across from her. He realized that leaving and giving himself time to think through what had just been revealed would be most prudent, but the discomfort in his groin kept him solidly in the seat.
In that moment Malca felt old—old enough to have a husband cheat on her, old enough to recognize the dark shame in his face. “Who was she?” she asked so softly that both of them had to wonder if she had actually spoken.