Matrimony: An Excerpt

Yesterday I posted an interview I did with Joshua Henkin, author of the new novel Matrimony. Now here’s an excerpt of the book for your reading pleasure…

Julian drove up to spend New Year’s Eve with her, but they went to bed before midnight, and were it not for the fireworks outside her bedroom window, she wouldn’t have known what day it was. She heard a distant hooting, like owls celebrating some nefarious feast, and she lay in bed as one o’clock passed, and then it was two and she was still sleepless. She could see the tropical fish swimming in circles in their tank, casting their aqua glow. “Those things never die,” she told Julian. “I neglected them in high school and my parents still neglect them. I think they’re essentially unkillable.” She could hear the rain falling on the roof, tapping its relentless code. “Look at you,” she said. “Your feet stick out.”


“I’m too big for the bed,” Julian admitted.

Her mother was down the hall, recovering from the chemotherapy; a new round would begin tomorrow. Her father and sister were focused on the details, which was a way to occupy themselves, she understood, but she didn’t want to discuss the details. She just wanted them to admit how frightened they were, but it seemed they weren’t able to. And maybe she wasn’t, either. Last night, she’d stood silently with Olivia in the kitchen, and then she blurted out, “I love you,” and Olivia blurted it back. A discomfort settled between them, a shame almost. What freighted words those were, reserved for so few people sometimes it seemed they were never to be used at all. She recalled being a child, four, five, six when she said those words to her teachers and classmates, when it seemed there wasn’t anyone she didn’t love. Then a hardening set in, and you didn’t love anyone any longer, or at least you didn’t say you did, so that now she couldn’t remember the last time she’d said those words to anyone besides Julian, when there were other people she loved, her family, certainly.

She nudged Julian out of bed and they shambled in their pajamas through the house. She felt desperate for him to know her better, felt a conviction that despite having been with her for three years, he didn’t apprehend her at all. From her parents’ bedroom came the sinister whirr of the white-noise machine. She felt somnolent, guiding Julian through a haze from which she feared she would never emerge.

They stood in her father’s study, where built-in bookshelves rose from the floor to the ceiling, with a library ladder that rolled along a track. And there she was, in the photo on her father’s desk, poised between her parents at a McGill graduation, holding a 7-Up aloft. The faculty brat, surrounded by books. She and Olivia used to play a game, Guess the Number of Books in Dad’s Study, like Guess the Number of Jelly Beans in the Jelly Bean Jar. In the den, she flipped on the TV. Only three hours after the fact, Times Square looked abandoned except for the garbage. Now the countdown was being replayed, and the TV, a small black-and-white number with a broken antenna, started to go fuzzy. “You think this is bad,” Mia said. When she was growing up, her parents’ TV had been even smaller and her father had used a metal hanger to function, sporadically, as an antenna. Her parents had kept the TV in the closet, taking it out only for special occasions-they liked to watch Masterpiece Theatre and Upstairs Downstairs-so that the status quo ante, as her father liked to say, was with the TV in the closet. Though late at night, when she was supposed to be asleep, Mia would emerge to find her father watching hockey games on tape delay and she would sit down and watch with him. When she was small, her father liked to explain hockey to her, not just the rules of the sport but the physics of the game, the strategic use of angles and the way the puck caromed off the boards, and it seemed to her listening to him that the ideal hockey player was really a physicist.

She handed Julian a stack of papers. “Look what I came across when I was poking around. My mother’s half-finished dissertation.” It was on onionskin paper, so gossamer she feared it would crumble in his hands.

“What did she write about?”

“Ancient Athenian coinage.” Mia stared down at the typed pages. “What a fucking shame.”

“To write about ancient coins?”

“No,” she said impatiently. “That she never finished it. It would have taken her another year. Two, at most.”

“She told you that?”

Mia nodded. The assumption had been that her mother would finish her dissertation when she got to Montreal and then, who knew, maybe there would be a classics position at McGill. But she never went back to her graduate work. It was one of the things Mia had fought with her about. Mia had sworn she would never be like her mother, would never abandon the city she loved and relinquish her career for her husband’s.

In the basement, she and Julian swatted a Ping-Pong ball back and forth. They went at it silently, the ball hitting the paddle and the table and the paddle again. Then they climbed the stairs and wandered around the same rooms they’d been in before, moving mindlessly about the house like rodents trundling across a cage.

Opposite her bed, Sigmund Freud looked down at her paternally. How curious, she thought, to grow up with a poster of Freud in her bedroom when all her friends had plastered their walls with the heartthrobs of the day. Freud had begun his career as a hypnotist, and Mia had been obsessed with hypnotists; there had been one at every Bar and Bat Mitzvah she attended. She would come home from those parties and swing a pendant in front of her parents’ eyes, chanting “You’re getting weary, you’re getting very, very weary” until her parents, utterly unhypnotizable, insisted that she stop.

She was crouched in her closet, rifling through boxes. “Hebrew School,” said one. “Synagogue,” said another. “My Jewish archives,” she told Julian.

“You really could read this?” He flipped through the papers with Hebrew lettering on them.

“I still can,” she said. “Sort of.”

“My girlfriend the Orthodox Jew.”

There was a Hillel at Graymont, and she had gone a couple of times to Friday night services, but she found them uninspiring, so she never returned. It had all started with those Bar and Bat Mitzvahs, the hotel ballrooms and the hypnotists, the celebrant’s name emblazoned on the dessert mints. A charade, her father said, retrieving her from one of the parties. He was right, Mia thought; she was convinced this wasn’t Judaism as it was intended. But she didn’t know how Judaism was intended, and she felt suddenly, at age twelve, a disconnection from her faith and past so profound she couldn’t believe she’d never experienced it before. So she joined the local Jewish youth group and came under the sway of an Orthodox rabbi, and soon she was going to synagogue every week.

She’d driven her father crazy by becoming religious-that, she suspected, had been her real motive-and there had been a protracted battle over her wish to unscrew the lightbulb on Friday afternoons so she could open the fridge on the Sabbath without turning on the light. Mia unscrewed the lightbulb and her father screwed it back and she unscrewed it again, until her mother intervened and removed the lightbulb, which meant she’d won: there was no light in the refrigerator. And that was how it stayed, even when, a year later, Mia stopped being religious. Perhaps the lightbulb had been lost, or maybe everyone had just gotten used to a dark refrigerator.

“And your mother?” Julian said. “She went along with all this?”

“She was amazing.” And now, hearing that white-noise whirr from her parents’ bedroom, voices, indecipherable, escalating and diminishing, Mia started to grow teary-eyed. She had resolved for the new year not to cry anymore or, at the very least, to cry less than she had been, and she was already breaking her resolution. The year she was religious, her mother had walked with her to synagogue, three miles there and three miles back, because Mia didn’t travel in a car on the Sabbath, and her mother sat with her through the services despite not being religious herself. Her mother purchased kosher meat for her, and two new sets of dishes, one for dairy and one for meat. And earlier, before Mia became observant, her mother had gone with her to the Oasis of the Occult and had lain down in the magician’s box as she’d requested. Her assistant, her beautiful mother, the lady she sawed in half. “Things are only going to get worse:’ she told Julian.

“How can you say that?”

As if what she said made a difference. It was superstition, this belief that hope had any bearing. Yet she knew she had her own superstitions, for in a way her pessimism was her hope. She would prostrate herself before the god she didn’t believe in, humble herself to the point that’s he couldn’t be anymore lowly, for how could you lay waste to someone who had so utterly given up hope?

“My mother wants me to shop for a wig with her.”

“Are you going to?”

“I’m scared. What if! don’t recognize her?”

“Of course you will.”

“Julian, I want you to come with us.”

He hesitated.

“Please? Do it for me?”

At the store, above the cash register, sat rows of torsoless heads with wigs perched on them. In front of Julian, an Orthodox Jewish woman was examining a wig, her six children holding hands behind her, linked like sausages. Next to them stood Mia’s mother; her hair was already starting to fall out, and filaments the color of wheat had landed on her jacket.

Julian watched Mia’s mother choose a wig. Then Mia was crying and Mia’s mother was, too, and Julian felt like crying, also, listening in on this family that wasn’t his, making their despair his own.

“You look good,” he told Mia’s mother. “Really, you do.”

Then Mia seized his hand, was clutching him by the elbow, and Mia’s mother was holding him, too, and he was guiding them out the door and into their car, Mia’s mother’s wig in its box like a cake on her lap as he drove the two of them home.

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