It was October. Leaves were falling everywhere, although they were not quite the shades Aidel wanted to see. Israel didn't really have an autumn, which was such a pity. When the seasons change, you get perspective on life: nothing stays the same for long. Everything constantly changes. When things are static, you suffer. Aidel certainly suffered during Israel's never-ending summers as she suffered through her never-ending divorce.
Aidel bent down to pick up a leaf with a particularly beautiful reddish color. She slipped it into her pocket and hoped she wouldn't forget to take it out before she put her skirt in the wash. Thinking of laundry made her remember it was almost one. She needed to pick Shayna up from daycare. The tuition was killing her, but she needed those hours to work to try to keep afloat.
She had known from the beginning of her marriage that Mendel wasn't the man she thought he was, but she stayed anyway. After she got pregnant, she felt trapped. However, seeing him abuse the baby and not just her made her pick up and leave.
"You stupid woman," he had said when Aidel proudly presented his dinner before him. "Don't you know I don't like skin on my chicken?"
No, she did not know. How could she have known? They had only been married a week. Had only known each other three months. Aidel was shocked by his response. She tried to hold back her tears, but she couldn't control them. They escaped her eyes so fast she had to turn quickly so he wouldn't see.
"Don't you dare run away from me!" he shouted, aggressively grabbing onto the hem of her skirt, causing her to fall backwards. Startled and ashamed, she attempted to get up, but there he was, standing above her. A foot on her thigh, pushing her down with all his might.
"This is the way it's supposed to be. Me above you. I am here to be served; you are here to serve. Remember that the next time you serve me something inedible." With that he kicked her to the side and stormed out of the apartment.
Aidel sat there huddled for what felt like hours before she found the strength to get up and go to sleep. When she awoke, she saw Mendel's bed had been slept in but he was no longer in the room, or the apartment.
He only made an appearance much later that day, and by then Aidel had hoped it had been a fluke breakdown and that he had returned to normal. After hearing the door slam though, her heart dropped.
"So?" his deep voice bellowed "What filth did you prepare me today?"
Aidel was terrified. She wasn't sure if she should serve him the fish she had prepared or lie and say that she did not make dinner. She went with the former option.
Luckily for her, salmon was her specialty, and a dish Mendel was less particular about.
"Good," he said wiping his mouth with a napkin. "You're not a complete failure." He pushed back his chair and threw down his napkin, which landed on the floor. He didn't bother to pick it up.
"I'm going back to the kollel. You better be awake when I get back. Don't even think about doing what you did last night. If I wasn't so disgusted with you I would have thrown you from your bed but I couldn't bear to be near you."
Aidel was shocked by his words, and by the fact that they had come from the same person who had smiled down at her lovingly underneath the chuppah just a few days ago. Her mind froze, not allowing her to process the repercussions of such behavior. If only she had not been so numb, maybe then she could have gotten out. But the little girl in her, the good girl in her, the obedient one, clung on to everything she knew and everything she was taught. She could do better. She would do better. A good wife she would be and this horrible treatment would subside. She was sure of it.
Things did improve, but mostly because they were both so busy. Aidel at work as a secretary and as a full-time housewife, and Mendel as a kollel student.Before long Aidel started to feel sick. She thought she might have the stomach flu, but then everything her mother, sisters, and kallah teacher had told her opened her eyes. She was pregnant; she knew it. She knew it before she bought the home pregnancy test and before she and Mendel went to the doctor to confirm the pregnancy.
The idea of becoming a father seemed to have done something to Mendel. After the pregnancy was confirmed, he was far kinder. Aidel almost started to believe it had all been a dream. A very, very bad dream.
But it was too good to be true. The gentle-eyed human being who replaced the monster that had abused her for weeks returned before she knew it, and with full force. One rainy afternoon, Aidel came back to the apartment after taking Shayna to a doctor's appointment. Her light cough had turned into an ugly bark that had Aidel very worried. Out of nowhere it began to pour and she was caught unprepared without a stroller cover, an umbrella, or even a jacket. Rushing back into the warm and dry apartment as quickly as she could she was met by a howling yell, so loud and so sharp it penetrated her ears and crushed her heart.
"Where were you?" Mendel's voice was so intimidating, so unnerving that she felt her whole body tense up and freeze.
Aidel started to feel dizzy. She leaned against the wall for support. Then she collapsed onto the hard, cold floor.
When she opened her eyes, she saw Mendel above her, dangling their infant daughter by her arm. Shayna was hollering and her cheeks and eyes were puffy from crying so much.
"What kind of mother are you?" Mendel snapped. "Going out in the pouring rain and then dozing off when your daughter needs you! You don't deserve her!" With that, Mendel grabbed Shayna and left the apartment, making sure to slam the door behind him.
Aidel started to lift herself off the floor and felt a sudden wave of nausea come over her. She sat back down, took a few deep breaths, and got on her feet in one swift movement. She grabbed her purse and fled from the apartment in search of Mendel and Shayna.
Mendel was nowhere to be seen. Anxiety overcame Aidel. She found a bench to sit on and began to cry uncontrollably.
"Excuse me," a soft male voice said, awakening her from her frozen state."Is there anything I can do to help you? Is everything okay?"
Aidel studied the kind face of the young man standing before her and recognized him as one of the men who studied at her husband's kollel.
"No…everything is fine, I'm just not feeling so well and I can't find my husband…" Aidel was so tired and distraught she wasn't aware if she was even making any sense.
"Isn't your husband Mendel? Mendel Fried?" Aidel saw the man raise his eyebrows in recognition and confusion. "He just passed by, with your daughter. I think he was headed toward the kollel. Would you like me to get him for you?
Too shocked to respond, Aidel simply nodded her head, and before she knew what was happening the man had returned holding a whimpering Shayna in his arms.
"I told Mendel that you were looking for him and that you weren't feeling well. He said he took Shayna with him so you could rest but if you were out, that you should take her home with you." Despite Aidel's weakness, fear, and shock at what had just transpired, she was able to recognize that the man sensed there was something else going on. Due to the distance men and women kept from one another in her circles, she knew he wouldn't pry.
Shayna stretched out her arms to Aidel and she welcomed her into her warm embrace.
"Thank you so much," Aidel said, in barely more than a whisper. "What's your name?"
"It's no problem at all. I'm Shalom; Shalom Rosen." He smiled, revealing a beautiful set of white teeth. It was unusual for her to notice such details, especially during stressful times, and yet something about Shalom made her forget where she was and what was happening, even if for a brief second.
"Are you sure there's nothing else I can do?" Shalom seemed anxious to help, as if he knew something terrible might happen.
"Yes, I'm sure," Aidel said, gaining strength. "You've helped me so much already…"
Aidel grabbed her things and started to run back to her apartment, contemplating if she should even bother getting her belongings. She decided to risk it and started to fill a bag with everything she thought she would need for Shayna and for herself for the next few days.
Standing at the side of the road, Aidel tried to figure out her next step. She knew she couldn't be around Mendel any more. He had tried to come between her and Shayna and she wasn't going to let that happen again. As a taxi approached, she frantically waved it down.
"Relax lady," the driver said calmly. She hurried into the back seat with Shayna, closing the door on her long skirt.
"Your skirt is stuck," the driver began. "You should…"
"There's no time," Aidel said, out of breath.
"What's the rush? Where are you going?"
Aidel's face fell as she realized she had no idea where she was going. She couldn't go to her parents. They would just tell her to go back to Mendel.
"I…I…I don't know. I just need to go. Now!" The driver looked concerned. Nevertheless, he stepped on the gas and began pelting her with questions."What's going on? Are you okay? Did something happen to your baby? To you? Should I call the ambulance? The police?"
He kept on looking at her through the rear view mirror while trying his best to keep his eyes on the road.
Aidel didn't know how to answer his questions. She wanted to answer them but she didn't know if she could. Or if she should.
"No, not the ambulance. We're fine; both of us. Don't call the police either…there's no need. I don't think there is…"
Staring out the window, a thought crossed her mind.
"Are there any women's shelters in this city? I heard about them once. Maybe I should go there... We could be safe."
"Is it your husband? Is he hurting you?" the taxi driver's face transformed from concerned to angry.
Aidel was surprised by his straightforward question.
"No, not really, maybe, I don't know…but he tried taking my daughter. I need to get away."
"I know where to take you," the driver said focusing on his GPS. He pulled to the side while he typed something into his phone. "We'll be there in five minutes," he said and started to drive once again.
The shelter, the women, the children there, the staff…it was all a dream. Aidel couldn't believe how lucky she was to have found this place. They were all like her. Religious women. Dedicated wives. Fleeing from the nightmare that was their husband. She was so fortunate Shayna was little and didn't know what was going on. Some of these kids looked so sad and confused. She heard many of them constantly asking their mothers when they were leaving and why they couldn't see their fathers.
Now she was getting back on her feet. Still no divorce, but there was a restraining order. He couldn't harm her or Shayna. He didn't know where she lived. She had a new job, new friends, and her parents were slowly accepting her new reality. She wasn't alone.
As much as she longed to see Shayna, she cherished these moments when she could be alone with herself and her thoughts. She stopped to pick up another leaf. This one was completely yellow.
When she stood up, there was a man approaching her. Walking away so as not to collide, she heard him say, "Shayna's mother, right?"
Surprised, Aidel turned her head to see a pair of kind eyes set above the sweetest smile displaying those unforgettable white teeth. It was him. She struggled to remember his name.
"It's Shalom, Shalom Rubin. We met…a while back." He blushed realizing their acquaintance brought up an uncomfortable topic.
"That's right. I remember," Aidel said, looking straight at him. "I never did get a chance to really thank you."
"For what?" he asked, looking down at his dusty black shoes.
"For getting my daughter. If it weren't for you…" Aidel's eyes filled with tears.
"Oh, don't worry about it. It was my pleasure."
"Well, have a good day," Aidel said, rushing off to get Shayna. As she put her hands in her pockets and felt the two leaves she had found, she turned her head once again and found herself staring at the eyes of the one who had paved the way for her new life.