That Man Might Live
By Jillian Leigh Torassa
I stared at the smooth dark table my father made for me when I moved out of the house seven years ago. It was the only thing he passed on to me, besides my woodworking skills. I was different from him in every other way. He died a poor, miserable old man, and I didn’t miss him, though I knew I probably should.
“Did you hear me?”
“Yes,” I said.
I looked up at Mary. Her arms were crossed over her chest, her pale pink lips pressed together tightly. The crease in her forehead--only there when she was upset--was deeper than usual, interrupting the flow of her smooth, porcelain skin. Her dark blue eyes appeared black as they watched me from beneath thin, dark eyebrows.
“Don’t you have anything to say about it?”
I looked down at my tan hands, which were crossed over the table. “No.”
My eyes moved to her face, the muscles in my arms tense, and my stomach turning the fish and matzah I ate for dinner uncomfortably, making me want to vomit. “I’m not angry. But I wish you would respect me enough to tell me the truth.”
A small tear ran down her cheek. She brushed it away and re-crossed her arms. “I am telling you the truth.”
“You expect me to believe you’ve never been unfaithful to me?”
“Don’t you trust me?”
“I thought I did.”
“Well, what’s changed?”
I stared at her still-flat stomach, the words unable to leave my lips.
The next morning, I arose early so I could be at the site before it got too hot. Building houses during the middle of the summer--never a fun job--paid the bills and helped me get my mind off things.
I pulled on my dirty pants and my snap-button shirt, grabbing a baseball hat to cover my messy black hair. I would shower after I got home from work. Buckling my tool belt around my waist, I headed out the door, ready for a day of manual labor and great distraction.
The Pennsylvania sun shone brightly outside my apartment, and as I walked to work, my mind wandered back to the summer, three years ago, when I first met Mary. I had been working in Allentown, which was 8 miles down the road. The kosher deli she worked at was a block away from our site, and while eating most of my lunches there, I managed to get to know the quiet but charming girl putting herself through grad school. Those were simpler times.
Most of the guys were already there by the time I arrived. Andrew seemed to spot me first and cat-called, his dark chest already obnoxiously bare, despite the chill that still clung to the morning.
“Look who slept in this morning,” he said, rubbing his abs with his already filthy hands.
“Morning,” I said. Usually, I was the first crewmember on site, but I wasn’t in the mood to talk about what had kept me up all night, especially not with Andrew.
* “Did you finally . . . you know . . . ” Andrew leaned in closer, cupping his hand around one corner of his mouth as the rest of the guys started to chuckle. “Have the ‘S’ word with your little fiancée-poo last night?”
Zeek, another now-shirtless team member started moving his hips back and forth, his fists pumping to signify he was “humping” the air. Andrew laughed wildly.
I rolled my eyes, grabbing a hard hat from the make-shift desk we kept on hand at each site. Construction workers were every bit as crude as they were stereotypically thought out to be, and it was tough being the only Orthodox Jew among the bunch, unwilling to have sex before marriage, much less talk about it, or make lewd comments at scantily-clad females as they trounced by.
“Seriously, man. We want to know what happened. If you’re hitting that sweet thang, we’ve gotta right to know,” Andrew said.
I looked up, scratching the thin beard covering my cheeks and chin, my eyes narrowed and eyebrows raised. “Grow up, guys. Really.”
Andrew rested his leg on a pile of wood, his hand on his thigh. “Then why are you late this morning? I’ve never seen you late, the whole six years I’ve worked with you.”
Turning toward the partly-framed house, I chose to ignore him.
“Lady troubles, I’ll bet.You know, it can’t be a coincidence. You get engaged, you become a slacker. The two have to be connected. It’s a death sentence, you know, marriage. I hope you’re prepared for that.”
I pulled my hammer out of my belt and pounded a nail into the wood. Don’t worry, Andrew, I thought. I won’t be engaged for long. My chest felt tight as Mary’s small, beautiful face floated before my eyes. I slammed in another nail, and the vision vanished.
The sound of vacant stillness greeted me when I reached the apartment. Usually, Mary drove down from Allentown after work and waited for me until I got home, but not today. She must have realized I wanted to be alone.
Gratefully, I sunk onto the couch, resting my elbows on my knees and rubbing my knuckles into my eyes. I just didn’t understand how she expected me to believe her. I would have been less hurt if she simply told me the truth. If my father were alive, he would have told me to publicly shame her—be the man, make the world know she had sinned, and be done with her forever. I didn’t want to be my father, and despite everything, I still loved Mary. I couldn’t marry her, but I didn’t have to embarrass her either.
My stomach seemed to bubble up in my throat as I began to picture the conversation I would have to have with her tomorrow.
I think we need to break off the engagement, I would say.
You made a commitment to me. Why are you doing this?
Because you cheated.
No. I didn’t. Why don’t you trust me?
How can you possibly be telling me the truth?
I was never very good with words, especially when it came to confronting someone with unpleasant news, and I was sure to get tongue-tied and mixed up when she was standing there, weakening my judgment.
Maybe I wouldn’t wait until tomorrow. I would have to do it quickly, like ripping off a Band-Aid. Reaching for my phone, I sent her a quick text.
Can you swing by my place tonight?
I flipped on the TV, all of my muscles feeling jumpy. Maybe I could just text her and tell her it was over. I knew she deserved better, but the idea felt so tempting. It would be hard to break off the engagement, her beautiful eyes staring up at me, anger and hurt etched deeply into every pigment of blue, her dark lashes fluttering rapidly in an attempt to remain in control.
The phone vibrated on my leg. I picked it up, my stomach clenching.
I can’t. I’m at my cousin’s. Are we okay?
I closed my eyes and exhaled a shaky breathe.
How can you even ask that? I texted back.
The phone stayed silent at my side for the rest of the night.
I woke up with a start, realizing I left the TV on through sundown and into the dawning of the Sabbath. I quickly turned it off, and headed to the bathroom, wishing I didn’t have to stay home all day tomorrow. I was grateful August agreed to give me every Saturday off as long as I worked for him, but I couldn’t help but wish he would occasionally insist I work through the weekend anyway, like a normal boss would.
I took a quick shower and headed to bed. My muscles were stiffer and more sore than usual, having worked them to the brink of exhaustion in order to keep my mind from wandering back to Mary. I slipped under the covers, welcoming the idea of sleep.
Somewhere between picturing my life without her and wondering what I would make for breakfast, I entered a huge white room with gold columns holding up a roof several stories high. I looked around me to find the floor covered in a thin, white mist. The warm mist danced and glittered with the soft light filling the cavernous space, and I felt a stillness come over me.
“Aw, my son. You made it.”
I spun around. An unfamiliar man in a white robe stood behind me. He wore a thick, white beard and a kindly look on his face. The corners of his eyes crinkled with a genuine smile as he headed toward me.
“Who are you?” I said.
“My son, I must tell you something. Something of eternal significance, not just for you, but for all mankind.”
He reached me, and I found myself staring at my hands, unable to look at his oddly bright form.
“Mary is telling the truth,” he said.
I raised my eyes to his face, feeling tears on my cheeks.
“How can that be so?”
“Where is your faith, my son?”
The man shook his head, and I fell silent.
“Listen to me, Joseph. Do not be afraid to make Mary your wife. That which is conceived of her is of the Holy Ghost.”
As he spoke the words, a warm feeling spread in my chest. It covered my whole body, filling my mind with light and peace.
“Raise the child as though He were your own. He has an important mission to perform, and I have chosen you as His father in order that He might be raised to do all that He is meant to.”
My eyes fluttered open as I awoke, and the warm feeling in my heart told me to call Mary immediately.
“What are we going to tell people?”
I wondered the same thing.
Mary’s head rested on my shoulder, her thin legs curled up on the couch next to me. I could still feel a wet spot on my shoulder from when she cried long after hearing the news.
“I love you so much, do you know that?”
I kissed her on the head. “I’m sorry I doubted it.”
“I understand. I’m glad you decided to trust me. I know that must have been hard for you.”
She snuggled a little closer, as my mind drifted back to the man with the white beard who told me I was chosen, chosen to raise a child who would save all mankind.
“We could go away for awhile?” she said. “Elope, tour the world, not come home until after He’s born—”
“I have my work here--I can’t just leave. And what about our families?”
“You’ll never hear the end of it. Not from Andrew, not from the gang, not from your mother . . . I don’t suppose anyone else will ever believe our story?”
“Probably not.” I slipped my arm around her waist, giving her a gentle squeeze, grateful for her presence, but wishing the warmth that filled my heart wouldn’t slip away so quickly.
“I guess it doesn’t matter. As long as we’re together.”
I looked down at her. She turned her eyes toward me, and her lips curved into a soft smile. I couldn’t help but smile in return. I bent down and pressed my lips softly to hers. “You and I know the truth. That is enough.”
“I know. And we can worry about everything else later. But for tonight, let’s just spend some time together.” She rubbed her stomach, resting her head back on my shoulder. “You, me, and little JESUS.”