How does it go again? A rabbi walks into a sex dungeon. He finds a shiksa that looks just like me, held together by leather and lace. When he wraps tefillin, he tugs the strap so tight it leaves a mark, imagining he’s pulling on the strings of her corset instead. When she whips him from behind, he bows like he’s davening. Blessed are You, Lord our G-d and G-d of our fathers, G-d of pleasure, G-d of pain, the great, mighty and awesome G-d, exalted G-d, who bestows feminine domination, who creates all things, who reminds me that I’m a man.
He wouldn’t tell me who she is, just showed me a picture. Dark hair, apple cheeks, a bump on her nose like mine. A promise that the baby they made would come out looking like mine. Roman Catholic. I could tell from the heavy gold cross pendant she was wearing in the photo. It was the only thing on her that wasn’t black patent leather and stretched taut against the curves of her body.
There weren’t any Jews who worked at the Dungeon, he explained. He knew his girl would need to be an Italian, an Armenian, a Greek. One who looked like the girls he’d grown up with, forbidden to ever touch. I’ll never know if he chose her because she looked like me, or if it was the other way around. In fact, he won’t even tell me when he started seeing her, before or after we got married. Before or after his first wife died. If he did start seeing her when she was still sick, he’d never admit it. He probably never would’ve copped to any of it, if not for the fact that he’d put a baby in her and not in me, where he was supposed to.
In all honesty, I was relieved to find out that she was having the baby for me — Christian or not. I didn’t want to be pregnant or give birth, even if that meant I was a failure of a wife. After all, what was I to him if not a vessel for his children? And what kind of vessel was I, who couldn’t carry anything? Either through divine punishment or divine grace, depending on how you looked at it, I was rewarded for my not wanting with the scourge, or gift, of infertility.
Already, the other girls I’d been in seminary with all had babies, plural. The flesh of their girlish bodies had yielded to their children, their hips opening up, each baby passing through easier than the last one had. They’d all married boys our age, just finishing up yeshiva. Shy, nervous, half-baked boys who’d hardly talked to a woman before besides their mothers. Whose hands shook and sweat, limp and doughy in their laps, their eyes drifting from one corner of the ceiling to the other as they searched for words, desperate for something to say.
My matchmaker knew I could handle a challenge. That I wouldn’t have patience for boys so inexperienced that I’d end up more his mother than his wife. She sensed that I could take a man. She was knowing. She could close her eyes and channel the wisdom of the universe like a brilliant beam of light, drawing two people together as if they were designed for each other, no rational explanation needed as to why. Although she would never say it, I bet she could tell the rabbi liked bad girls, and that I was one of them. Maybe she’d caught me sneaking off to Manhattan at night, miniskirt on, underneath my modest clothes. Most likely though, she didn’t need to catch me — she just knew.
The rabbi needed me like I needed him. Like I needed to not be with the mumbling yeshiva boys who’d never so much as crossed the Williamsburg Bridge, let alone satisfied a woman. Give me a hunched, bearded old man, grizzled by the toll of this lifetime. Give me a golem, give me the Rebbe, give me Noah himself — 950 years old and bearing the weight of mankind’s misdeeds — I can take it.
My husband needed a woman like me, who might catch him running up a bill getting stepped on at the Dungeon, but would understand he felt he still hadn’t faced punishment enough. He needed a girl who’d take good care of him when he sunk into the darkness for weeks at a time, haunted by the memory of his slowly dying wife. Of all he could’ve done differently. He needed a wife who’d listen when he’d confessed what a fraud he was, claiming some false righteousness as a spiritual pillar of the community. He needed one who’d take in his baby boy and love him as her own, after he came inside his dominatrix and got her pregnant. Who’d smuggle the baby to the mikvah in the dead of night, making him a Jew, in secret, in her own half-legitimate way.
I pictured that scene often. The baby boy’s heartbeat against my bare chest, so perfect and new as we dipped in the mikvah together. Holy bathwater surrounding the two of us, reminding him of the place he’d just been, curled inside his other mother. The soft quilt of his hair against my skin as we dip three times and recite the shecheyanu. It’s like I’m giving birth, but this time it doesn’t scare me.
For all our talk of modesty, we Jews understand what it means to be naked. In the mikvah, we submerge entirely unadorned. No jewelry, no makeup, not a spot of nail polish on our fingers or toes. There’s no barrier between our bodies and the living waters. Nothing standing between me and the baby. Nothing standing between him and G-d. For all the times my husband saw his dominatrix in various stages of undress, I’m convinced he never saw her truly naked. Never like that. Unadorned. Her corset and garters and glittering cross in a pile in the corner. Even when they fucked, I can only picture her in costume.
I’d stopped going to the mikvah months ago, even though I was still bleeding as usual. It wasn’t hard to fake a pregnancy under modest clothes, but my husband bought a fake pregnant belly I could tuck under my shirt when it got to the point where I should no longer be able to hide the swell of my body. When I was out in public, I would wrap my arms around the bottom of my bump like I’d seen a million women do before, visualizing the relief that might provide, easing the heaviness off my pelvis. Some of my guilt was absolved by the fact that it wasn’t completely a lie. The silicone belly made manifest a more profound truth. I was pregnant with something just as heavy as a fetus growing inside his mother’s womb. A secret held tight between a learned rabbi, his dominatrix, and me.
While my husband was out one day, I took the train into Manhattan to meet the woman whose child I’d be taking as my own in two short months. Without knowing her name, I showed up at the Dungeon with the same picture my husband had shown me. “She doesn’t work here anymore,” the front desk lady said and gave me a funny look, as if she could tell I was Orthodox, even though I’d changed into my immodest clothes and took my wig off for the occasion. When I asked for a phone number she refused. “I can’t give out the dommes’ contact information, it isn’t safe.”
“Fine, can you leave her a message? Tell her Akiva’s wife Estie came by,” I said, unsure he’d even been using his real name. “She’ll know why I need to talk to her.” I wrote my number on a slip of paper and passed it across the desk, half expecting my message to dissolve into the ether.
Imagine my surprise then when I got a text from an unknown number the very next day. “Hey, it’s Nicole.” She gave a Rockaway address and said I could come by anytime.
“Next time I can get away,” I promised, not wanting the rabbi to know what I’d done. “You’re not at the Dungeon anymore? Is my husband helping you out?” I asked, hoping she might show me something good I didn’t know about him.
“A bit, yeah. But no, I couldn’t work there pregnant. Lucky for me there’s a lot of guys online who are into pregnant girls.” I thought of how my girlfriends looked when the baby was close and knew what she meant. Their bodies so full and animal, flush with blooming life.
Nicole’s house was one in a row of identical squat brick houses. You could see where the earth dropped off at the end of her street and the ocean began. There were wrought iron bars over her window and doors, just like in our development. To keep the women from escaping, the joke went. I stood on the front porch, ringing her buzzer. “Come in!” I heard her shout, muffled, and turned the doorknob. Was it really that kind of neighborhood, where you could leave front doors unlocked? I worried for my baby.
Her house didn’t look like any I’d been in before. A carved wooden cross hung over a brick fireplace. A Christmas tree, its lights blinking, still stood in the corner of her living room even though it was March.
“I’m back here,” she shouted again, and I followed her voice to a bedroom, where she laid watching her TV on mute. I eyed the empty candy wrappers and soda cans on her dresser with suspicion, finally resting my gaze on a half drunk bottle of vodka in the far corner, which she’d made minimal effort to hide. Let me meet the mother of my child first, and then we’ll talk about what she’s been feeding him, I allowed, pushing down my concern. She looked even more like me than I’d gleaned from the picture. Her raven hair spread across her pillow, her eyes wide and brown, curtained in thick black lashes. It made total sense to me why my husband had picked her of all girls, in the way that familiarity breeds attraction.
I stood a few feet from her bedside, nervous, wondering whether she might get up or if I should pull up a chair. Finally, I broke the silence. “Can I, you know, see the baby?”
She pulled her quilt aside, showing me where the blood had soaked all the way through a Maxi-Pad, through her threadbare panties, leaving a puddle of rust on her sheets.“My baby’s gone,” she cried. And I knew from the way she said those words, my baby, that he never really was going to be mine.