The last time I went to the mikvah was in May of 2017. It was then that I said my goodbyes. My ex husband and I were giving it one more month, a last ditch effort, of trying to make it work.
“Please, one more shot,” he had pleaded with me in the bais din office, the dayan looking on curiously. When I close my eyes, I can still smell the whiff of his desperation, can see that panicked look in his eyes, that tragic mix of despair, fear, and yet, there it was, the innocence, the last embers of hope for a miracle, for something to come along and merge these 2 very different pieces of driftwood into a semblance of a working ship.
Even in this swirling chaos of impending destruction, I felt so sad for this man who had only asked for a sweet simple wife and a growing family. Oh, my sweet, sad husband of the past. How hard you tried and how long you were willing to wait for me to want you. How patient you were, trying to reach me, trying to spark the attraction that would never come. How you loved me and wanted me in ways I could never, ever return no matter how hard I tried.
They were right in the end, weren’t they, all those Google opinions I had feverishly sought out on the topic of chemistry. “Can chemistry be created?” “I was never attracted to my husband, now what?” The answers were always pretty much the same: If it’s there at the beginning and gets lost, there’s always hope for resurrection. But if it was never there to begin with, there’s really nothing to be done. You cannot create a spark from nothing. In short, there was no hope.
I always knew it deep down, but he didn’t want to believe I had never felt anything. Or he didnt want to believe there was no way to make something from nothing. So we continued this way for years, him trying to light a spark, me failing to catch it. I, too, tried my darndest at times. Focus on the good. Set the mood. Exercise. Therapy. Work through any possible barriers to intimacy. Deep down, though, I always knew. He avoided it, we both did, but I always knew the truth.
But then, I knew many things he didn’t know. Things I chose not to share with him over the last 8 years. I knew years of numb walks to the mikvah. Passing the ice cream shop on the way there, all nice and cheery in the dark. Maybe I’ll stop by there on the way back, I would tell myself, as a “treat” before going home. That dark little voice telling me she knew exactly what I was up to, and no matter how hard I may try, I was never getting out of going home. No ice cream store visit was going to save me from being touched and taken by a man I didn’t want.
I knew that dull ache of walking through the metal gates, past the sophisticated, artsy looking couch by the entrance, down the steps. “Bath,” I’d say perfunctorily, paying the $22 fee, and the moody receptionist would point in the direction of my stall. Through the doors, down some more halls. Here we are. Sigh.
I knew suffering within these bathroom cubicles. Sitting in my underwear on the toilet seat, viciously rubbing the nail polish off my fingernails. File, file, cut, brush, shave, wash, comb… So much trapped energy bouncing off these walls. Sometimes I would resort to quiet whimpering, or, when I felt angrier, violently smacking the tiled floors over and over again with my fists, hot tears rolling down my cheeks.
“Why are You doing this to me?!” I would silently scream out to G-d. “Out of all people, after everything I went through… how COULD You? What do You WANT from me?!”
It always ended the same. I would need to control myself, get my shit together. Turn on the bath water, get in. Sit, soap up, soak, smear away any external evidence of impurity. Check the list, check myself, check again. Contact lenses off. The short walk to the mikvah room. The pretty painted walls. Dip, bracha, dip again, yehi ratzon, dip again. “Kasher, kasher, kasher.” Asking the mikvah attendant for a moment alone. The gentle clicking of a closing door. Silence.
And I would always pray. Pray for clarity. Pray for my childless friends to get pregnant, for my single friends to get married, clarity, clarity, clarity. Can you help me be a better mother, help me on this journey of raising this beautiful soul? Clarity, clarity, clarity. Can you help me be closer to You and understand what’s going on here? Clarity, clarity, clarity. It was a constant refrain bouncing off the walls of my head with no reprieve.
And then the walk home. If you could know that walk, you would know the sound of resignation. Submitting each footstep to the pavement, one after the other, round the corner, maybe a quick visit to the ice cream shop, and straight on home. No escape from home. Surrendering to what was, over and over again. The memory of this cycle is sobering, saddening, maddening, actually. Waiting for the answer, waiting for clarity while submitting to “no” for years on end.
But on this night in May… well, it was springtime, and I had finally retrieved the golden nugget of clarity I had searched for for nearly a decade. It had been waiting for me at the bottom of this well, this bucket of doubts and fears and what ifs. The oil always rises to the top eventually, but this oil had taken its sweet unhurried time, hadn’t it?
I knew all of this had always been wrong. I knew what I had to do. Goodbye. I would be saying goodbye to these cubicle walls after a lifetime, an eternity, of pain within them each month. Goodbye. My emotions were a funny little mixture. There was happiness- no, glee- as I realized this was it. I would never have to come here against my will again. I would never have to let a man touch me unless I wanted it, really really wanted it. I would say YES to touch I wanted, NO to touch I didn’t want. My body was a temple and it was sacred and all mine, all mine, allll miiiiine to have and hold and protect.
Goodbye nail file. Goodbye tiled floors. Goodbye intense smelling purple commercial shampoo. Goodbye nondescript clock at the corner of the room, ticking away the seconds.
My bath that night was unhurried, glorious in fact. Indeed, I felt like I was shedding the impurities of almost 8 years of heartache and despair. It was all going to be okay, wasn’t it? I would choose love over fear. I loved this man and wanted him to be with someone who would truly desire him in all ways. I loved myself and wanted freedom from this purgatory. I loved my child and wanted to give him the gift of Me, alive, well and full of color. And come hell or high water, I was not backing down. I would say yes to love.
I think back on all these memories as I sit on my bed, alone at last. Its summertime now, 2 years later, and I have never felt happier in my own skin. This room. It’s mine. This body, it’s all mine. I did it. I chose love, and I have lots more love to show for it. My son sleeps peacefully in the next room, his breathing even. We’re okay. We’re making it.
I ask myself how I feel about mikvah today. The word kind of slides around, slippery and slimy in my head. I’m not sure about it. Maybe one day I’ll replace all those constricted memories with newer, better ones. Maybe it’ll be a different journey. Who knows? I wonder how G-d could have heard me pray and cry all those years immersed in those purification waters and still keep quiet, quiet, quiet, 7 years before giving me a hand. Was He listening? Did He even help me eventually or was it my voice that pulled me out? Then again, isn’t my highest voice just another synonym for G-d’s voice? I’m still unsure.
In my mind, right now, I travel back to the mikvah, still just a few blocks away from my home but now so deliciously far from my memory and experience. I send healing winds to that entrance, that brusque receptionist, the maze of dim hallways leading toward the stalls. I wash the walls and tiled floors with a long sigh of peace, for all the women walking in there with the weight of their stories upon them.
May the waters heal you. May you heal yourself. May we all choose joy at the end of these long dark tunnels. May we dwell in the ice cream store for hours and hours, or however long we want, frivolously and without a glance at the clock. May the sound of our footsteps be joy and lightness, and may dull resignation give way to choice, to “yes” and love and allll miiiiine. May the bitterness of our memories and traumas be washed away by the purest of holy waters, and may only the juicy parts remain, the “remember when,” the battle scars that whisper of old times but, more urgently, awaken us to the beauty and yes-ness of the ever present Now. Yes. Yes. Yes. Amen.