01/09/2012 02:43 am ET Updated Mar 11, 2012

The Little Bride

My novel, The Little Bride, begins in a basement in Odessa, where 16-year old maidservant Minna Losk is being given her "Look" - an examination to see if she's sufficiently "fit" (i.e. "virginal") to become a mail-order bride to America. She dreams of a handsome husband and a townhouse in New York. What she gets is a 40-year old Orthodox man, named Max, who she's not the least bit attracted to (though she finds his older son quite fetching). Equally disappointing, she's living in a sod hut in "Sodakota," surrounded by nothing but prairie grass and rocks. Her wedding - hosted by the superbly self-righteous Ruth and Leo Friedman - brings her little comfort. In this scene, she wakes up the morning after and discovers that sex with Max (her first) didn't make her bleed, as it's supposed to.

Minna woke into whiteness: the billowing feather bed beneath her, the light slipping around the curtains, the curtains themselves, her gown. A light breeze stirred. She felt weightless, luxuriant. She felt as though she might call out and someone would come to see what she wanted. A girl like she had once been.

She rolled over. There was Max, on his back. There was, coming from Max's nose, the high, whistling snore she'd mistaken for the breeze.

She sat up.

This was the first morning, then. She knew better than to be disappointed. Yet her throat was as tight as if she'd swallowed a brick. Last night's tears threatened to flow again; they'd left a crust at her nostrils. She wished, at least, that there had been music, that Ruth hadn't cut the evening off with her clucking. Weddings aren't meant for harvesttime, not a moment's sleep to spare! She walked to the window. There was Leo's masterful windbreak, six trees in a perfect, silent row, and beyond it his fields in their perfect rows, and beyond them the family's hay, already cut and stacked, golden piles of their labor. Minna's wish turned suddenly desperate. What wedding was ever as sober? Not a single person had danced the kamensky; there was no pageantry, no drunkenness, no wrestling. No noise and no stars. Not even a chuppah tall enough to stand under. More than cheated, she felt doomed. Even when the guests lined up to kiss her as they departed, the mood was more funereal than celebratory. Even Otto, who with his pretty blond wife looked the very picture of joy, had not looked joyous.

Or maybe Minna was exaggerating? Maybe this was only self-pity. What bride woke up hating the world? There was, as her aunts used to say, something spoiled in her. And now she was spoiled, too, in the corporeal sense.

And yet--she realized--there'd been no blood.

She twisted around, pulled up a fistful of white gown, to be certain.

What would Max make of that?

She had heard of girls pricking their fingers, drawing red smears down the sheets. But if he woke, and caught her, it would seem she had something to hide. He would question her, and what would she say? She couldn't tell him about the Look, no more than she could tell him what she'd done to make herself itch, her touching and seeking. If there was something wrong inside her, any explanation she gave would make him angry. At Rosenfeld's, perhaps--at her, certainly. In the basement, she'd felt she had no choice, but now she didn't see it that way, now it seemed she'd made a terribly wrong choice--many wrong choices--now she could not imagine Max had meant for her to submit to that. He couldn't have known. He could not know now.

She looked back at him. She'd neglected to cover him when she rose, and now she saw that at some point in the night, he'd put his shirt back on, and buttoned up his trousers, so that he looked like a man who was simply taking a nap, in his own bedroom, in the middle of the day. And she looked, she realized, like a wife. A wife standing by the window in her stainless nightgown, the collar of which was still buttoned up to her chin.

She'd been transformed, despite herself.

And this, perhaps, was the way to proceed. As if she had been this woman her whole life: a wife, married to a man. A husband's wife. Minna Getreuer. Maybe this was how Ruth had done it, once upon a time, how all women--the ones who stayed--did it: you woke up in a new place and decided to call it home. And then you had no right anymore to be homesick. Your life, suddenly, became a wonderful thing.

On the floor Minna spotted Max's yarmulke upside down, a little black saucer. She picked it up, climbed back onto the bed, and shook him gently. "Max. Max," she cooed. A deceitful cooing, perhaps--but the kind of deceit that could become honest, she guessed, if practiced long enough.
Max opened his eyes. He looked disoriented, then pleased. "Minna," he said, and reached for her face. She stopped his hand before he could say my bride, or my love. Then she shook away her annoyance, squeezed the yarmulke into a ball, and held out both her fists, knuckles down. "I have a gift for you," she trilled. "Guess which one."

Max shook his head.


Reluctantly, he sat up. When he touched her right fist, Minna was glad: she didn't like how pathetic he looked playing her silly game, or how she sounded begging him to. She turned her hand over, released the yarmulke, and smiled.

"You lost this," she teased.

Max raised a hand to his bare head. Minna kept smiling. She felt silly for having worried about the blood--of course he would forget to notice, or he would remember too late, tomorrow, when they were miles from the sheets. She fluttered her lashes, the coyness spilling out of her like a song she didn't know she knew. So this was how it began, she thought.

But Max wasn't watching her. He took the yarmulke from her hand, laid it on his knee, and smoothed out the creases. He didn't look angry exactly, and not quite ashamed, either. He looked like men looked just before they entered synagogue, arranging their collars and their shawls and their yarmulkes precisely so, as if they hoped, once inside, that they would all look the same.