Illustration by Brooke Bourgeois

Fiction The Late Year

Lily Meyer

Hester learned to be frank from her father. At home, he rarely spoke. Every day after school, though, Hester did her homework in his office at the Fairfield Park-n-Shop, where, if she sat beside the heating duct in the spare consultation room, she could hear his conversations with the nurses as clearly as if she were sitting between them. With them, he was voluble. Hester learned about illegal abortions, fallen wombs, frigidity. She was twelve when she heard her father describing to one of the two nurses, in remarkable detail, the activities they would be enjoying at the Hotel Hi-Ho on her day off.

She never told her mother. Why bother? Marrying a doctor was the crowning achievement of Pearl Richter’s life. As Hester moved through high school, she learned to pretend, in order to keep domestic peace, that she respected both her father and her mother’s choice to put up with him. Her first month at Sarah Lawrence, though, she told the entire class of 1963 not to set her up with doctors. No pre-meds. No medical students. No biology majors, just to be safe.

Hester’s refusal to date doctors was her first source of fame at Sarah Lawrence. The second was the Biblical force of her cramps. At home, she’d learned not to complain about the tooth-grinding agony her periods brought; her mother had suffered the same kind of cramps and been talked into a hysterectomy. But in the safety of school, Hester permitted herself some bitching and moaning. On bad days, she cut class and let her roommate Irene bring her soup.

Sophomore fall, Irene began to suggest that Hester’s cramps were violent enough to warrant visiting a doctor. Hester tried shrugging her off, but when Irene wouldn’t drop it, Hester admitted that she was scared. She didn’t want to end up like her mother, belly scarred and uterus pickling in some specimen collection.

Irene, who shared Franklin Roosevelt’s approach to fear, shrugged. “If you’re scared, then go see an analyst first.”

To Hester’s surprise, the idea appealed. She thought analysis sounded exciting, if also embarrassing, like taking a guided tour of her own mind — but her analyst was no tour guide. He sat opposite Hester in his Manhattan office and informed her that her cramps were a psychosomatic manifestation of anger at not having been born a man. She was punishing herself for having a womb.

“That’s ridiculous,” Hester snapped. “My mother’s cramps were so bad she had a hysterectomy.”

The analyst nodded. “Perhaps a castration complex as well?” he suggested, and Hester snatched her coat from the couch and marched out.

She fumed the whole way to Grand Central Station. Castration complex. She’d never met a less insightful person in her life. Did he not know how female bodies worked? Did he think women wound their cramps up like a watch? Maybe he had never experienced pain. Hester wished it on him. She wished him kidney stones or a prostate malfunction. Then let him talk about self-punishment.

She was furious. She was also an hour early for her train. She parked herself at the Oyster Bar, then discovered that, to her shame, she wasn’t brave enough to order a drink alone. Hating herself, she ordered oyster stew, which she’d never tried before. It was viscous and oddly bitter. To punish herself, she decided to eat the whole bowl.

She was halfway through when the man beside her slid a basket of Parker House rolls toward her. “The waiter gave me too many,” he said. “I’d hate to see them go to waste.”

Hester scowled at him. Then she looked at the rolls. Fat flakes of salt glittered on their crusts.

“You don’t have to talk to me,” he added, earnestly enough to put Hester at ease.

She broke off a piece of bread. “I could talk.”

The roll donor was named Joe Marx. He was a senior at Princeton and had been visiting his parents in Queens. He wore a soldier’s olive wool coat; when Hester asked, he told her he’d enlisted the afternoon of his high school graduation. He’d come to the United States as a refugee, fleeing occupied Austria. He looked levelly at Hester as he described his gratitude to his adoptive country, and she felt a needle twitch inside her. His left eye, she noticed, was slightly larger than his right.

She put her hand on his wrist. The needle twitched again, and Hester opened herself up to the possibility that her day hadn’t been a total waste. “Tell me more.”

 

That spring, Joe visited Hester most weekends. After graduating, he moved to Washington for a job at the State Department but took the train to New York twice a month. Hester timed his visits to avoid her painful periods. She needed all her energy for weekends of sneak-around sex and downtown jazz concerts, kosher Friday nights with his parents and treif Sunday lunches in Chinatown. They went to Broadway shows because she liked them and art museums because he did. The dark modern de Koonings and Bacons at MoMA were too much for Hester, but she loved the Morris Louis show at the Guggenheim, where she stood before his streaks of painted light and felt the world spinning under her feet.

Joe proposed on New Year’s Eve, over dinner at the Waldorf. He’d picked out a brilliant-cut ruby from Landsberg’s. Once she was done admiring it, he said, “There’s one more surprise.” As the waiters assembled champagne flutes on the bar for midnight, Joe told Hester he’d received his first posting. In June, he would become the assistant cultural attaché at the United States embassy in Montevideo, Uruguay.

At first, Hester was thrilled without reservation. She was marrying a truly adventurous man, and here was the proof. Only when she returned to comfortable, dull Sarah Lawrence did she start worrying that she wasn’t equipped. Nobody at school was exciting. Her professors rarely even seemed awake. Her classmates had brains, but devoted them mainly to debating issues like juice cans or hot rollers, toothpaste or pimple cream, diaphragm or make him wait.

Irene, thank God, was an exception. Her father, a long-widowed Columbia professor, had raised her to both converse and behave like a son, which disadvantaged her romantically but made her invaluable to Hester, who, once her sixth and final semester of college began, had to admit she was scared.

“I don’t know why I’m nervous,” she said to Irene. “I love Joe.”

“Of course you do.”

“And I’m proud of him.”

“I know.”

“Besides, think how much I can learn in Montevideo. A new language, a new culture —”

“A new everything. How could you not be nervous? If I were getting married and moving to a country I knew nothing about, I’d have jitters, too.”

Irene had a point. Hester’s search for information about Uruguay had been mostly fruitless. The Sarah Lawrence library offered only a crumb-filled monograph on Uruguay’s role in the United Nations; Walter Cronkite never mentioned it on the Evening News. All Hester knew was what Joe told her: that Uruguay was a democratic, prosperous country with minor inflation problems and a strong export sector, and that the United States’s diplomatic mission there was dedicated mostly to training police and counteracting Cuban influence. Joe would be working on the latter, via a series of concerts and art shows. It was, he said, a very cushy first post.

Hester tried to settle her nerves with the idea of cushiness. How much of an adventure could it be to move to a country threatened mainly by inflation? And how — this argument worked better — could an adventure that involved Joe be a worse choice than any life without him?

What worked best to calm her, though, was fighting with her mother, who was horrified by Hester’s engagement and called weekly to say so. “Who ever heard of Uruguay?” she demanded on the fifth call.

“Uruguayans.”

“Don’t be smart.”

“Joe told me Uruguay is very peaceful,” Hester tried. “They call it the Switzerland of South America.”

“You’d think he might take you to the Switzerland of Europe.”

“Diplomats don’t choose their assignments.”

“Do they choose to be diplomats?”

Hester sighed. She’d like her mother to be proud of her patriotic son-in-law, but praising Joe’s service to his country might, at best, win Hester a minute of grudging approval before her mother began listing the rest of Joe’s flaws: he was an immigrant, a shtetl Jew with no status at all. Who cared if he’d studied politics at Princeton? His family wasn’t even well known in Queens.

“I just can’t understand it,” her mother declared. “And until I understand, I can’t approve.”

“I see,” Hester said. “In that case —” She paused, for effect. “Why don’t I ask the Marxes to help plan the wedding? Their temple has a lovely social hall.”

There was a silence, broken only by larch branches clattering at the window. Hester imagined the puckered, line-creating look on her mother’s face. She dropped her voice to add, “You and Daddy wouldn’t even have to pay.”

“You’re my only child,” her mother said, wounded. “Not to host my only child’s wedding would be a severe disappointment.”

“Well, then. Up to you.”

 

The wedding was a major feat of Judaic compromise. It was held at Fairview Country Club, but the rabbi took the train there from Queens. The gilt chairs and ice carvings were pure Reform Connecticut, as was the ninety-minute cocktail hour, but the meal was so kosher it was barely edible. The dancing was mixed, but not even for the horah would any of their parents set foot on the floor.

Hester didn’t care. She was happy. Happy with the massive ranunculus bouquets on the tables, the constant rustle of her three-foot silk train. She smiled at the old rabbi’s blessings and the young waiters’ smirks. She’d never been so pleased with herself. She had defeated her fears. She was married, and confident that her marriage, unlike so many Sarah Lawrence girls’, would be nothing like her mother’s.

Between dances, she pulled Irene close. “I did it.”

Irene laughed. Her taffeta dress was beginning to wilt at the bodice. “I know. I was standing right there.”

Onstage, the band lifted their horns. Hester watched her great-uncle Adolphus wave his cane in an effort to dance. His wife dodged it, swinging her patent handbag. Hester wondered how long they had been married — half a century? More?

She scanned the ballroom for her husband. He was leaning on an ice swan’s pedestal, talking to a pack of his Army friends. He looked slim and serious in his tuxedo, and Hester felt a fresh stab of delight.

“I still can’t believe it,” Irene said.

“That I’m married?”

Irene nodded. “You could be pregnant before I graduate.”

“I could be a mother.”

“A whole new Hester.”

“You think I could change so quickly?”

Irene shook her head, opal earrings glinting. There was so much affection on her face that Hester had to look away. “Honestly?” Irene said. “I can’t imagine you changing at all.”

 

The new Mr. and Mrs. Marx honeymooned at the Fontainebleau Miami Beach. The hotel had two restaurants, a cabaret and a glittering, liver-shaped pool. Hester and Joe spent their days on loungers, drinking cocktails with crushed canned pineapple and inventing lives for the Floridian women parading to the bar in vividly colored maillots. In the evenings they tested how many times it was possible to make love before collapsing. So far, their record was four.

Hester hoped the honeymoon would be well timed for her to get pregnant but tried to keep her expectations low. Conception was hard in her family. Still, she was disappointed when her period arrived in the Miami airport. She stuffed hand towels down her stockings in the bathroom, wishing she’d had the sense to pack menstrual supplies in her pocketbook. Now she’d be bleeding on herself all the way to Uruguay.

Mercifully, her cramps didn’t begin until the second flight, a military transport from Caracas to Montevideo. Hester breathed deeply and tried to keep her uterine muscles relaxed. The Marines across the aisle played stud poker, snapping the cards on their knees, and Hester fell asleep to the sound of their shuffling hands.

When she woke, the plane was banking for landing. The whole center of her body hurt. She felt pitiful. Why were there no other diplomatic couples on the plane? She needed a woman to console her. She wished Irene could bring her soup.

Joe leaned over. “Hester. Look outside.”

She turned to see the Río de la Plata snaking beneath them. Beside it, the beach was as thin and white as a grapefruit’s band of pith. Hester could make out tiny cars on the street, palm trees like green star moss. A cramp dug in, and she closed her eyes.

“Beautiful, right?” Joe said.

Hester nodded. The plane tilted and bile rose in her throat. Until this moment, she had planned to keep concealing her menstrual pain from Joe. Now she saw that in marriage, it might not be possible. The airplane sank lower. The tarmac was gray and cracking, the U.S. Army base no more than a hangar and a series of dingy Quonset huts. Hester wished for a bright airport to greet them. She wanted bustling terminals, stewardesses in skirt suits, the ring of Spanish the moment they arrived.

Joe squeezed Hester’s hand. “Ready?” he asked. As if to reply, the plane shot wheels from its undercarriage, then jounced itself to the Uruguayan ground.

 

Joe’s new boss came to collect them. He was silver-haired and brined-looking, with Bass loafers that looked like he’d buried them underground for a year.

“Ned Holman.” He kissed Hester’s cheek, not bothering to make eye contact. “Your husband didn’t warn you?”

“Of what?”

Holman gestured at her robin’s-egg traveling dress, miraculously unstained with blood. “Winter.” He grinned, showing furred teeth. “Welcome to the Southern Hemisphere.”

Outside the hangar, it was frigid. Dead palm fronds clacked in the wind. In the back of Holman’s staff car, Hester clamped her thighs together, afraid of bleeding onto the seat. Joe would be mortified; Holman, revolted. Hester would be the laughingstock of Montevideo’s diplomatic corps.

From the front of the car, Holman delivered a lecture on Uruguayan politics. Hester wanted to listen, but her cramps had moved to her back, making it difficult to focus on anything but sitting upright. She took three-count breaths and tried to admire the view out the window: brown river, flat boardwalk, shuttered beachfront bars. The boardwalk was called the Rambla; that, at least, she’d learned. Across the street was a high bank of mansions, each with an ornate balcony and manicured yard. The only pedestrians she saw were two policemen in helmets and high black boots.

Holman’s commentary was getting louder. The country’s primary issue, as he hoped Joe and Hester knew, was Cubans. Montevideo was crawling with them. The Paraguayans were fewer in number, but sufficiently radicalized to pose a threat. Homegrown Marxism was spiking, though less in the city than on the sugar plantations in the north. The students got more Communist by the day. They were highly unionized — “Not that the unions can tell their pricks from their assholes, mind.”

Joe cleared his throat. “Ned.”

Holman flicked his eyes to the rearview. “Sorry. Not many delicate ears in my life.”

He swung onto a broad shopping street. Here, the sidewalks were full. The neighborhood looked as prosperous as Fairfield. Women herded children into new-looking cars. Old ladies walked poodles. Three men passed a brown gourd back and forth, drinking from it with a metal straw.

“What is that?” Hester asked Holman.

“Yerba mate. Tastes like tea mixed with ditch water. Someone offers it to you, it’s rude to say no.”

They passed a shoeshine booth, an umbrella repair shop, a tailor, a butcher, a produce stand. The butcher’s window was filled with marbled, purplish meat, a display that turned Hester’s stomach. She looked instead at the VERDULERÍA LO DE PEPE, its sidewalk tables piled with melons, persimmons, squash as warty and runneled as candles left to burn down.

Holman knocked the back of his hand on the window. “This is where you’ll do your shopping. Unless you get a housekeeper.”

Hester didn’t reply. In a fit of rebellion, she’d had Joe turn down the Embassy’s offer of domestic help. She wanted to go to the markets herself. If her husband was going to spend his days creating opportunities for cultural exchange, then she wanted to do some exchanging of her own. Besides, how better to learn her new neighborhood than to shop alongside its other wives?

Holman turned onto a street with two-story houses on one side, apartments on the other. He parked outside the tallest building on the block, and Hester assessed her condition. She could stand, and walk, but if she had to climb more than one flight of stairs, there was a risk she might faint.

Holman turned and smiled at her, showing his miserable teeth. Joe opened the passenger door, letting in a wave of cool, humid air as Holman pointed at the apartment tower. “Calle Luis Cavia 2724. Welcome home.”

 

Hester spent her first weekend on Calle Cavia in the bath. Threads of blood unfurled through the water, impossible to hide. To her relief, Joe was neither repulsed nor angry. He was, in fact, intrigued to see menstrual blood for the first time after years of hearing his mother gripe openly about not only her period, but her Talmudically-mandated trips to the mikvah afterward. She resented the latter more, he said, than the former.

“She hates to get wet.”

Hester sank into the water, amazed. What would it be like to complain about her body whenever she wanted? Even to Irene, Hester had never mentioned the patches of rough skin covering her hips and lower back, which no amount of prescription creams could make go away, or itch less.

Joe returned to his newspaper, which he’d been translating aloud to Hester. “My Spanish is terrible.” He scowled. “I don’t understand. I studied all year.”

“I’m sure you’ll learn fast.”

“I thought I was learning.”

Joe set the paper down. The wall behind him was a horrifying pinkish-beige. Hester was tempted to blame Holman for the color. She certainly blamed his staff for providing beer steins instead of drinking glasses, and a plaid living room set that belonged in a hunting lodge. At least the apartment had only one bedroom. If she got pregnant, they’d have to move.

She wondered if Joe’s mother had struggled to conceive. He had no siblings, which was rare in Orthodox families. Before, it had seemed unspeakably rude to ask. Now Hester suspected that, if she were brave enough to put the question in a letter, her mother-in-law wouldn’t mind one bit.

“How do you feel?” Joe asked.

Hester touched her stomach through the cooling water. Her sides hurt, but she appreciated being naked in front of her husband without a breath of sexuality. Before, she’d only experienced this kind of nudity with Irene.

“Better,” she said. It was the first lie of her marriage. “I think I could be ready to get out.”

 

The next morning, Hester felt improved enough to wake with Joe’s alarm. She brewed coffee and fried eggs, impressed by their perky yolks. At the door, she kissed her husband twice, saying, “You’ll be terrific.”

Joe tucked his scarf into his wool Army coat. “Promise you’ll call if you start feeling sick.”

“I told you, I feel perfectly fine.”

“I wrote the switchboard number down in the kitchen.”

“The operator won’t think I’m a prank-dialer? Calling the U.S. embassy and asking for Marx?”

He laughed, and Hester joined in. She’d never teased Joe for his name — their name — before. She tried to imagine her husband with a different last name. A less Jewish one. Joe Russell, or Miller, or Fox. There was no shame in switching. Hester’s mother was born Pearl Kirchberger in Newark, but began first grade in West Orange as Pearl Churchill. On her father’s side, no Americanization had been necessary. His family had been Richter in Berlin, Richter in New York. “You could’ve taken mine,” she joked. “We could have been the Richters.”

“Joe Richter. That has a nice ring to it.”

Hester liked that Joe was playing along. She had a flash of regret that the idea hadn’t occurred to her before the wedding. What a good scandal, for her husband to take her name.

“All right, Mr. Richter.” She pressed upward to kiss him. Blood trickled into her sanitary belt. “Get moving. The last thing you want is to be late.”

 

Instead, Joe was late coming home. Hester had a chicken roasting when he phoned to say his colleagues had arranged a welcome dinner. “Should I get dressed?” she asked, tugging at her slacks.

There was a brief, buzzing silence. Then Joe said, “Holman told me no wives allowed.”

Hester narrowed her eyes at her reflection in the dark window. Their apartment had plaid drapes to match the plaid sofa. She hated them. She hated every piece of décor the Embassy had provided.

“I’m sorry, Hes. I told him I’d play ball this one time, but —”

“But nothing.” Chicken smell wafted from the oven. “Go have a good time. I think it’s nice your colleagues are giving you a welcome.”

“Nicer if they’d let me send a car for you.”

Hester heard a shout of male laughter. She permitted herself a moment of pleasure that Joe would choose her over his new co-workers in word, if not in deed. Then she reminded herself that a professional welcome dinner would almost certainly not qualify as adventure. What interest would the Embassy staff have in amusing a twenty-year-old wife? If no other wives were there, she’d be left to sit and smile politely, doing her best to retain the details of Joe’s colleagues’ lives.

“I’m sorry,” Joe said. “Really.”

“Don’t be.” Hester kept her voice light. “Have fun.”

 

Joe was out past dinner the first three nights of the week. Hester spent her days scrubbing the bathroom, cleaning the hideous slatted blinds, eating cold chicken while she waited for her first proper Uruguayan meal with her husband. Faced with the carcass for Thursday lunch, though, she was too disgusted with herself to eat. Her period was over. The apartment was spotless. Why couldn’t she go outside?

She went first to the butcher she’d seen when she first arrived. The meats were more appealing now, but she couldn’t fathom what to order. Uruguayans, it seemed, had two dozen words for steak. Did she want entraña? Peceto? Cuadril? She tried to ask the butcher for a recommendation but couldn’t decipher his response. She pointed to a tray of glossy brown kidneys. Those, at least, she could identify.

The produce stand suited her better. The air there smelled wonderfully sweet. She didn’t recognize half the fruits, but the owner, an enormous old man whose mustache was stained reddish with fruit juice, led her through the store, teaching her names.

“Chirimoya,” Hester repeated. “Guayaba. Membrillo. Caqui. Limón.” The word for grape — “Uva!” — she remembered from her introductory Spanish course, and the fruit-seller broke off an entire stem of fat green grapes and gave them to her as a reward.

Walking home, Hester swung her string bag and silently chanted her new words. The neighborhood, at midday, seemed populated wholly by women. The older ones wore headscarves and thick sweaters; the ones Hester’s age, slim wool coats and fitted skirts that made them look like extras in an Italian film. Hester felt dowdy in her gathered flannel, but glad to know there was good fashion here.

It was an elegant city. The buildings on Avenida Brasil reminded her of newsreel footage from Rome or Madrid: curlicued gratings, ancient cornices, high wooden doors without knobs. Up close, though, the city seemed less clean than it had from Holman’s car. Black mold crawled over windowsills, and strange moss grew over the sidewalks, which were spotted with dog feces and piles of dry, dumped-out green tea leaves. A stray dog slept in the gutter. Hester could smell its dirty fur, mixed with grilled meat and the brackish scent of the Río de la Plata.

She liked her apartment marginally better on returning to it, which struck her as a good lesson in housewifery. In the kitchen, she arranged her fruits on a cutting board and sampled each one in turn. The guayaba was disappointingly mealy and weak-tasting, but she enjoyed the persimmon, and loved the chirimoya, which had gigantic, satiny seeds and sweet white pulp that tasted too tropical for wintry Montevideo.

Hester had expected Montevideo to feel more Caribbean. Despite its placement on the map, she had envisioned Miami, not Rome. She should have taken more cues from the Switzerland nickname, though Uruguay seemed not at all Germanic. She tried to remember which of Switzerland’s cities were Italian. Lugano? Bern?

Irritated at her own ignorance, she ate the whole chirimoya, though she’d meant to save half for Joe. He probably wouldn’t be home before it turned brown, she told herself, but that night, he arrived promptly at 6:00, bearing flowers and a bottle of wine. Hester used a half-cup of it to sauté the kidneys, which, Joe said, were his favorite organ meat.

“Did you know that?” he asked.

Hester blew him a kiss. “Of course.”

“Liar.”

She laughed. “Now I know.”

While she finished cooking, Joe set the table, then filled two beer steins with Cabernet. As Hester sat down, he said, “I have a request you might not like.”

“You want me to have Holman for dinner?”

“Holman? No! Why?”

“Isn’t that what wives do?” Hester said, startled. “Cook dinner for bosses?”

Her mother was always hosting dinner parties for doctors, a task she loathed. She’d put on her hated apron and spend days on vol-au-vents, then force Hester into a starched dress and order her to sit quietly while the gastroenterologists discussed the merits of scoping patients’ small intestines.

“I don’t care if it is.” Joe sliced a kidney in half. “You shouldn’t have to host Holman. He hates women. And Jews. The man’s barely civilized. I think the State Department found him in a cave.”

“Do you think he’s good at his job?”

“He must be, to have risen so high. But diplomats are meant to be charming. How could he charm anyone with those teeth?”

Hester took a soft bite of kidney. She predicted what Joe would say next: that no Jew could rise to consular status with visible tooth decay like Holman’s. To get a government job, a Jew had to make himself gleam.

But to her surprise, Joe said, “I told Holman we keep Shabbos. Which, if you don’t mind, I’d like to do.”

Hester sat back, startled. She’d gone to Joe’s parents for Friday night dinners, but she’d never actually observed a Sabbath in her life. The Richters only acknowledged major Jewish holidays, and those minimally. To her parents, outward religious observance — a mezuzah on the door, a yarmulke outside temple — was déclassé. Hester had thought she lacked that prejudice, but her rising panic told her otherwise.

Maybe marriage had made Joe long for religion. Maybe moving abroad had made him miss the comforts of his parents’ Jewish home. Maybe he’d refuse to use electricity on Saturdays or demand a kosher kitchen. How could she find kosher meat when she couldn’t communicate with her butcher? Were there Jewish grocery stores here? Were there Jews?

Joe was laughing, which told Hester she must be wearing her reaction plainly. Her cheeks and collarbone felt hot. She pressed her fingers to her face, but that only made her feel unclean.

“Of course,” she made herself say. “But Joe, where is this coming from?”

He took her hand. “The Embassy seems to expect a lot of late nights.”

“I noticed.”

“Which is perfectly fine for a bachelor like Holman, but I know you’d like to see more of me than you have this week.”

“I would.”

“I haven’t got much leverage to refuse. Not as the newest arrival. But I thought if I made it known that I keep the Sabbath, I could at least guarantee that much time for us to spend together.”

Hester relaxed in her chair. “So this isn’t about religion.”

Joe laughed again, then kissed her fingers. “No, Hester. I’d rather not tell my superiors an outright lie, is all. But if you can manage a few hours of services on Friday nights, then the Embassy has no hold on me Saturday. I get to spend it with you.”

 

Hester spent the next afternoon washing and setting her hair. She applied a full face of makeup, examined her reflection, then wiped off everything but the lipstick, amused at herself. The former Hester Adele Richter, excited for services. Who’d have thought?

But it was an outing. Her first date with Joe in Uruguay. It wasn’t quite New Year’s at the Waldorf, but still, walking to the nearby Nueva Congregación Israelita, Hester felt giddy. The cold breeze slipped under her jacket, and her cordovan heels clicked on the concrete. The neighborhood’s fenced houses shone beneath the streetlights. Tango music drifted from fogged windows, and color TVs shed cool light on living-room walls. Would she have guessed, if the Embassy hadn’t provided one, that color televisions were available here? All week, Hester had tried and failed to watch the news. Without language, the images flitting across the screen — sugarcane cutters, a fleet of sleek buses, the flat gray face of a Brutalist cube — were impossible to interpret. It was more like visiting some strange exhibition at MoMA than turning Cronkite on at home.

A little boy bicycled toward them, school tie flapping. He called a greeting as he passed, and when Hester turned to wave, she saw a yarmulke pinned to his blond hair.

Hester had never cared that she was Jewish. She’d never minded it like her parents did, but she’d also never felt much kinship with her fellow Jews. Wasn’t it more modern, more American, not to? But now, in a country she still couldn’t imagine properly, she found herself grateful for the idea of Jewry. The little boy on his bike made her feel slightly more known.

The Nueva Congregación had the same effect. It smelled like the synagogue of her childhood: brass polish, old books, kosher wine. The Eternal Light flickered warmly from its battered sconce. The walls were pebbled with age, the blue carpet flat and balding, but the sanctuary seemed, if not well cared for, well loved.

Hester could imagine bringing a child here. Blending in with the Jewish mothers of Montevideo, who looked very much like the Jewish mothers of Fairfield’s B’nai Israel. Same nipped waists, same gold earrings, same pale skin and shellacked hair. Someday, Hester hoped, these women might be her friends. Her toddler might run loose in the aisle with theirs, trailing sucked-on toys. Hester, once she spoke Spanish, could join the synagogue’s sisterhood.

The women around her prayed heartily. Their husbands rocked on the balls of their feet. Joe chanted in his Yiddish-inflected Hebrew, and Hester tried her hardest to join. For the first time in her life, she wanted to attract God’s interest. She needed someone to talk to.

 

Over the next three months, Hester performed more housekeeping and more Judaism than she ever had in her life. Joe worked late almost nightly, and on Saturdays he was often too tired to stir, but he never skipped Friday night services. By August, they were the highlight of Hester’s week. There wasn’t much competition.

The problem with expatriate life, she’d come to realize, was that it was awful. Joe was ceaselessly busy. She had no friends. Her Spanish was hopeless, which rendered chance encounters and synagogue small talk tragicomic at best. She was taking a class at the Embassy, but the other students were staid matrons only interested in learning Spanish to more effectively bully their domestic staff. Hester hated them, but would have socialized with them if they asked.

No one did. Hester had expected the diplomatic corps to have an intimidatingly glamorous social life, not a glaring void where one should be. Hester wondered if Joe’s Protestant colleagues were socializing without them. Sometimes she hoped so. Anti-Semitism seemed easier to combat than an Embassy full of committed bores.

She did her best to occupy herself. She watched the news on Teledoce, rejoicing when she identified a word she knew. She wrote moderately dishonest letters to Irene and held one-sided conversations with God. She got in the habit of taking the bus to the Ciudad Vieja, where she roamed the streets until she found herself outside the Universidad de la República, watching students buzz through its arched doors. Holman had claimed the university was filled with Communist radicals, but to Hester, they looked perfectly tame.

She didn’t know much about Communism, except to despise it. She’d have liked to learn more, but how? Montevideo had no English-language bookstore, and the Embassy library wasn’t exactly overflowing with Marxist texts. It did have a Bible, which Hester brought home, but the Old Testament failed to move her. She knew the big stories already, and the other chapters focused mainly on burnt sacrifices and ark measurements. Still, she read it to the end, waiting for an intimation of divine presence. If one came, she’d chase it like a dog after a squirrel.

But God remained absent. Hester started the Bible a second time. She considered telling Joe she did want a housekeeper, if only for company. She began taking daily walks on the Rambla, always bringing crumbs to feed the seagulls. How had she been reduced to befriending birds? Six months ago, she’d been one of Sarah Lawrence’s most popular juniors. Girls brought her cramp remedies as offerings, hoping to enter her good graces, though everyone — doctors and analysts excepted — was in Hester’s good graces. Well, the joke was on her. She’d love to have an analyst now. She’d befriend Fidel Castro if he came and fed the gulls with her.

That wasn’t true. Hester knew her husband’s sole purpose in Montevideo was opposing Cuban propaganda. She’d seen Castro’s name smeared on buildings in dripping paint. Privately, she doubted its authors would be influenced by modern-art shows, but who was she to say? She was a monolingual housewife, not a trained diplomat.

She sat on a bench at the Pocitos beach. A tern pecked down the sand, its feet spindly and black as dead twigs. A cop strode by with his hand on his pistol. It was August 21st. Almost spring. According to Joe, the Rambla would be packed by the end of September. Once that happened, Hester would be ashamed to come here alone. Hester felt a premenstrual twinge in her belly. She leaned back, remembering her mandatory Marriage and the Family class, in which the professor passed out hand-drawn diagrams of the female reproductive system. The uterus looked like the mermaid’s purses that washed out of Long Island Sound. Above it, the two ovaries were split in half, crammed with developing eggs. They looked like kiwi slices, or eyeballs.

Hester imagined staring into her belly, her ovaries staring defiantly back. She willed them to work better next month. She worried, sometimes, that she wanted to get pregnant to prove she could. To know her uterus was good for more than hurting. The admission depressed her, but the alternative — to admit she wanted a child to solve her solitude problem — was even worse.

Hester tossed her last bread crumbs and rose, tugging wrinkles from her skirt. Walking home would take her half an hour. If she was lucky, she’d make it before the bleeding began.

 

Hester’s August period was the worst of her life, until the September one. There were significant clots. Her cramps felt like wolves fighting. She spent the Jewish New Year in the bathtub, trying dimly to remember the prayers Joe was reciting in synagogue. She knew you asked God not to kill you by fire or water, stoning or starving. If she were there, she’d add a line about cramps.

By the time Joe returned, Hester had dragged herself to bed. He sat beside her, stroking her hair while she faked sleep. She didn’t want to be petted. She didn’t want to rot in her hateful apartment while her husband served God and country. Why did he get the big political job? Why did she have to be in pain? Why couldn’t they share and share alike — and, barring that, why couldn’t he give her a child?

Hester knew Joe wasn’t to blame — getting pregnant had taken her mother four years. Still, she blamed him. His work hours weren’t conducive to regular sex. He was so often late at the Embassy, so often exhausted at home. She should have picked a man less concerned with spreading democracy than with spreading seed.

The thought of sex sent a small flicker through her. Not arousal, precisely. Just hope. So many Sarah Lawrence girls swore by orgasms as cramp relief. Hester had always dismissed the suggestion as kid stuff, not nearly the caliber of help she needed, but now, she thought, she’d prefer the combined pain of cramps and not-right sex to the unified misery of each muscle fiber in her uterus straining against the rest.

She stirred and stretched, pretending to awaken. Then she sat up and kissed Joe, with tongue. He responded tentatively, and Hester snaked herself into his lap.

“Hester,” he said.

She kissed his neck. “Joe.”

“Is this a good idea?”

“Why wouldn’t it be?”

He pulled back, his starched shirt rustling. “What if it hurts you?”

“Is that it?” Her eyes heated. “Or do you not want to?”

“Of course I want to.”

“You don’t have to. I understand —” Hester gestured at herself. She was sweaty, bloated, disheveled. She was an ocean of blood. She felt intensely undesirable, and yet her husband moved one hand to the small of her back, the other to her puffy waist. He touched her breast through her nightgown, and she shivered.

“What Jewish year is it?” she asked.

Joe kissed the hollow of her throat. “5723.”

“We have to start 5723 out right.”

He laughed, then lowered her to the mattress. “Just make me one promise,” he said, settling himself between Hester’s thighs. When she rocked her hips against him, new sparks moved through her, muting if not overtaking the pain. “Just promise,” he said again. Hester bit his ear, and his voice dipped. “Promise that you’ll stop me if it hurts.”

 

Once Hester had recovered, she issued a marital edict. “I want to make love more.”

Joe tensed. Carefully, he asked, “Is that a good idea?”

Hester bristled. “We’re married. And I’d like to be pregnant.”

She expected him to apologize. Instead, he said, “I’m worried it’s not safe.”

Hostility surged through Hester. She didn’t want her husband’s invented medical opinions. For that, she could call a shrink. “It’s just sex.”

“Hester.” He met her eyes. “I’m scared.”

“Of what?” She felt a laugh bubbling under her collarbone. Why should he be scared? He wasn’t the one scraping blood clots like jellyfish into the trash. “Of the Cubans? The Communist students? The art for your show not arriving on time?”

“Hester —”

“Oh, I’m sorry. Was I wrong? Let me guess again. Are you scared of fatherhood? Of being married?” The laugh was becoming something else now, something uglier. “I understand, Joe. Having a baby is irreversible. Once we’ve got a child, you can never get away from me.”

Joe buried his face in his hands. Hester glowered at his chewed-down fingernails, the roughened red skin at his wrists. What was he doing at the Embassy, dishes?

“I’m scared of hurting you,” he said. “I’m scared being pregnant might hurt you. I want you to see a doctor. I asked for recommendations —”

Hester flew from the couch. “You what?”

“I asked for recommendations. The best English-speaking gynecologists in Uruguay.”

“You told your colleagues my private business?”

Joe raised his head. “I asked for help. We need somebody to help you.”

“You can help.”

Joe stood, and she retreated across the carpet to the waxed hardwood. Why did she wax the floors? Why did she clean at all? She kept house for Joe, and he couldn’t even keep her secrets?

At least he knew not to approach her. “Every month, I watch your pain getting worse. Hester, how could I not think that’s my fault? Before we got married, this wasn’t happening. Now it is.”

His voice broke. Hester was dizzy with rage. Could he not grasp the concept of a monthly cycle? Did he think she’d never suffered without him there to watch? She didn’t need a witness. Didn’t need his help. The pain she bulldozed through each month was her family curse — hers and her mother’s — and Joe had no right to involve himself. There would be no doctors. No hospitalization. No one would push her into a hysterectomy. Hester and Joe would fuck till conception. That was it.

Hester pressed her shoulder blades against the wall. “I won’t see a doctor.”

“Hester.”

“No ‘Hester.’ I made a simple request. Get me pregnant. That’s the only help I want from you.”

 

For six nights, Joe followed instructions. He came home at 5:30, or 10:00, or midnight, and he and Hester had the worst sex of their life together. Worse than the first times, when they were checking into hotels under fake names, terrified of getting caught. Worse than their half-drunk, foot-swollen wedding night. Worse than when Hester’s whole torso was howling with cramps. All those times had been, in their ways, exciting. Now Hester felt like a leaky boat Joe was trying to fix.

On the seventh night, he wasn’t back for dinner. Hester let the pot roast she’d made get cold. She ate a ham sandwich with one of Joe’s Patricia beers, for which she was developing a taste. Her mother would say drinking beer was unladylike, but Hester no longer cared.

She didn’t worry about her husband’s whereabouts until she woke up at 2:30 in an empty bed. The crescent moon shone through the blinds. A shadow oozed along the bedroom wall. The whole world seemed thin and sinister. She pillowed her head on her arms and examined the cracked ceiling. Each blister in the paint cast its own little shadow. Hester decided to let herself be sad.

She wished Joe were here. Not for sex, but for companionship. She knew Joe loved her, but she wished he were her companion. She wished Jewish-American marriage in Montevideo were less like Jewish-American marriage in Fairfield. How was she different, truly, from her mother? Only in that she lived far from home, and sought God.

At temple, Hester felt a budding sense of community. Women smiled at her when she ventured a halting hello. She was confident that once she could converse, she’d be embraced. Why hadn’t she realized before getting married that she’d need more people than Joe to talk to? If she was lucky enough to get pregnant, her baby would speak Spanish years before she did.

Hester worked so hard to be patient. She tried to have faith in her own life, but when she asked herself to believe that she, like the Biblical Sarah, would get pregnant no matter the odds, she wanted, again like Sarah, to laugh.

Hester imagined Sarah chuckling to herself in her tent. Sarah in the desert shade, hand on her belly, feet bare. What would her tent have been made of? Sheep leather? Yak? Would she have had a makeshift floor to watch Hagar sweep free of sand? Probably she was lonely. Probably, once her husband started sleeping with her maidservant, she was in need of a friend.

Hester was still thinking about Sarah when, finally, she heard Joe’s key in the lock. Irritation curled through her chest. She rolled over and listened as he shut the door and pulled the chain across. He was breathing loudly, panting really, as if he’d run home from work.

Hester sat up. She heard the sharp, cascading clatter of the umbrella stand falling. Joe must have knocked it over. Was he drunk? He never got drunk. Fear spiked through her. She kicked the covers off and hurried to the moonlit hall.

Joe was leaning on the locked door, sagging into himself like rotten fruit. A dark stain spread down his half-buttoned shirt. When he saw Hester, he croaked, “Come here.”

She was already moving toward him, numb with terror. She felt like a toy on wheels: a wind-up car, a pull-string duck. Had he been hit by a car? Mugged?

Joe was shaking. She wanted to hold him. “Tell me —” Her voice faltered. “Tell me what won’t hurt.”

Joe wrapped his free arm around her. The whole hall smelled like rusted copper.

“I love you,” he said. “Hester. I love you so much.”

He trembled harder. Hester was too petrified to speak, even to tell her husband she loved him too.

“I came straight home,” he said. “To see you. I didn’t want Holman calling. Or our doctor.”

“Holman?” Hester repeated. Why would Holman call? Who was our doctor? She and Joe had no doctor. She’d refused.

A new coldness moved through her. Holman would call if he were, somehow, involved. Had Joe been injured at work? Had the embassy been attacked? Or was his work not the peaceful curating and paper-shuffling he’d led Hester to imagine?

She turned the light on, filling her vision with stars. Joe had a three-inch cut on his forehead. Lilac bruises swelled beneath his eyes. His nose was plainly broken, and he was holding a balled, bloody undershirt to the side of his head.

“Joe,” she said. “What happened?”

He bowed his head. Sour sweat wafted from him. Hester could smell it on her own skin.

“Tell me,” Hester said.

“Not in the apartment.”

“Joe.”

He met her eyes, then flicked his gaze to each wall in turn. “Not in the apartment,” he mouthed, and Hester understood that she had never been alone. When she spoke to God, somebody was, in fact, listening. When she cried over her friendlessness, a hidden wire carried her sorrow straight to the Cuban embassy.

She pointed at the soaked undershirt. “Then show me.”

Her husband lowered the cloth to his side. At first, Hester saw only red flesh, then an absence that bounced from her mind. Joe held the ruined shirt out to her. In its center was his left ear.

 

The Marxes got to take Joe’s ear home from Uruguay. The doctors at the Sanatorio Americano, having failed in five hours of surgery to reattach it, preserved it for him in formaldehyde. Hester tried to display the yellowish jar on the mantel of their new Georgetown apartment, but Joe, who’d wanted to throw the ear into the Río de la Plata, wouldn’t bite.

“Bad enough I have to walk around with one ear,” he said. “Don’t make me look at the other one.”

Hester kissed his shoulder. “You know it’s a sign of bravery.”

It was a sign of something. Of his service, of her mangled life. Never again could she be fully honest with a person outside her marriage. She would have to lie to her own child, should she be lucky enough to have one. Daddy’s in the State Department, she would say, when the truth was that Daddy, beneath his clean cover, was a field officer in the Central Intelligence Agency.

He had been recruited at Princeton. He’d gone there hoping he would be. An Army superior had told him the Ivy League was a breeding ground for spies. The day Joe met Hester, he was returning not from a visit to his parents, but from a battery of interviews and psychological tests. Even their first conversation had been pockmarked with lies.

And what could Hester do about it? To her new Agency-mandated psychoanalyst, she said, “I love him. I should be proud of him.”

“But?”

But she had never agreed to marry a C.I.A. officer. She never even got to consider it. Never trained. One day she was a diplomat’s wife, and the next, she had a husband who’d been sent home from his first-ever undercover rotation because his Cuban counterparts had trapped him in a parking garage, driven him to a dirt-road town in the neighboring province, and marked him like a branded steer.

The analyst told Hester her resentment was perfectly normal. He had seen it many times. Always, he said, it masked fear. He wanted her to tell Joe she was frightened. Hester would do no such thing. She and Joe had made a new vow: if there could be no honesty outside their marriage, there would be total honesty within it. And it would be a lie to say she was scared for Joe’s life when she felt only humiliation and rage. How could Joe have done this? How could he not have known how thrilled she would’ve been to keep his secret? She would have been his co-conspirator. They would have had the true partnership in which she’d so fervently believed on their wedding day.

Hester knew she should be honored to be married to such a brave man. Such a patriot. Where was her own patriotism, that she was still furious three months after moving to Washington? Where was her in sickness and in health, which evaporated when, in bed, her mouth got too close to Joe’s scar?

The puckered red tissue made Hester sick, but it turned her on, too. She hated the low string-pluck feeling she got when she touched it. She never kissed the scar, but, most of the time, imagining kissing it was enough to make her come.

Hester would never tell her analyst that. Nor would she admit it to Irene, who visited in January to cheer Hester up. “But honestly,” she said on the second day, after an extended walk around the Georgetown campus, “I was expecting far worse.”

“You were?”

Irene settled deeper into the sofa cushions. “Your brand-new husband got his ear sliced off in a foreign country. And you haven’t collapsed.”

Hester glanced at her rings. Never before had she withheld a thought or feeling from Irene, but what could she say now that was true? That the C.I.A. had forced her into psychoanalysis? That while she waited for the shower to run hot each morning, she shoved a Bendel’s hand towel between her teeth and screamed?

“No,” she agreed. “Not yet.”

“Might you?”

Hester shrugged.

“I’d make him leave the State Department,” Irene said. “If I were you.”

“Is that advice?”

“Not at all.”

“It would ruin my marriage,” Hester said, “to take his ambitions away.”

Irene squeezed her shin through the couch blanket, a fat, lemon-yellow thing Joe’s mother had knitted and shipped from New York. “You’re a good wife,” she said. “You’ve been very strong.”

Hester blew on her coffee. She didn’t feel strong. She felt like an unset jelly tipped too soon from its mold. She felt like she did on the last day of her cycle, when she wobbled up from bed to try her legs.

She tried to remember when her period was due. She should have taken it into account when planning Irene’s visit. If she hadn’t been so absorbed in her own self-pity, she would have scheduled her friend in a safely cramp-free window, which would have been — she counted — the weekend before last.

Her thoughts stopped. Slammed shut, like a window falling. Her lungs felt solid and hard. She pressed her fingers into her belly. Her period should have come a week ago. Ten days.

Hester shoved the blanket aside and moved her hand over her torso, as if touch would enable her to see inside. As if by pressing on her full bladder, she could prove what could not yet be proven. What she’d been too distracted by shame to suspect.

Irene looked concerned. “Hester? Are you all right?”

Hester felt bloodless. She felt like she was floating up through the top of her head. This was not a moment to transcend her body, and yet she felt wholly separate from herself, from this woman, this liar, this mother of a spy’s child.

“Irene,” she said. Her voice shook. “Irene, I’m late.”

Lily Meyer is a writer, critic, translator, and PhD candidate at the University of Cincinnati.

Copyright © The Drift 2021