The Silent Treatment

by Rachel Stein

Naomi wondered what reason her mother had given her friends for taking her oldest daughter on this whirlwind trip to the Big Apple during the fall of her junior year in high school. Anyone who knew how much her mother hated to fly would realize that this was no pleasure trip. Naomi’s mom had made her swear not to tell anyone the truth. Mrs. Sternberg had taken Naomi’s chin in her hand, brought her own face uncomfortably close and demanded, “Promise you won’t tell anybody about this. Not Diane, and certainly not your sister. Not ever.” Naomi had promised because she needed her mother’s help, but she told herself that she would keep mum only until she no longer lived at home.

Her mother had made her dress properly for the plane ride. Since Naomi was a little girl, her mother had insisted that because they were the only Jewish family in the neighborhood, it was especially important that they look nice and act polite, so that people would accept them even though they were not Christians. Over the years, Naomi had come to doubt the aim of such propriety.

But this morning, Mrs. Sternberg had eyed Naomi’s standard bellbottom jeans and flowing India print top and declared, “You can’t wear those. You look like a little hippie slut. You have to look presentable when you travel.”

So Naomi had changed into a corduroy skirt and button-down shirt, pantyhose, and flats, and her wild cloud of curly hair had been brushed and barretted back along her skull. Naomi knew that her mom hated her uncontrollable hair that kinked in all directions, that she thought it looked dirty and unkempt—maybe too ethnic, maybe it reminded her of other secret curly patches of body hair? That was not something she could ask her. Today she was dressed as a twin version of her mother, except that her mother was armored in a girdle and an architectural bra, her female parts under complete external control, while Naomi’s fleshy body shaped more softly around her bones.

When her breasts developed during middle school, her parents had stopped touching her. The Sternbergs were not physically demonstrative people, rarely even kissing or hugging each other, but Naomi cherished her memories of their arms and hands upon her child self, her mother holding her in ballroom position, small hand in big hand and big arm cradled securely around her back, laughing as they waltzed in cockeyed circles around the living room while the stereo blared something schmaltzy. She had loved the quiet bedtimes when her father invited her to sit next to him on the sofa and trade back rubs, hands “crotzing” gentle circles over shoulder blades and rib bones. It saddened her when the rare hugs stopped completely and made her wonder why she was now untouchable.

Naomi had already been dismayed with her growing breasts and thickening thighs, her eastern European Jewish body that didn’t fit the 1960s ideal London-look image of the stick-thin waif. Her mother had never told her she was pretty, as she told her baby sister Ruthie. She would say to Naomi, “pull that hair back so we can see your face,” not “your pretty face.” Naomi had heard that omission. So, instead of aspiring to prettiness and popularity, she had cultivated brainy eccentricity, sewing herself odd hippified clothes, hanging out with the honors crowd, the theatre kids, the ones who tutored younger students in the housing projects on the weekend, the artistic kids—all holding their breath and waiting for escape from high school, escape from the too quiet, too still suburbs.

Naomi held her breath while the plane surged into liftoff. Her mother’s hands gripped the ends of the armrests as the plane nosed further up and pushed harder through the air, forcing them back against their seats. In her mind, Naomi heard Peter, Paul and Mary crooning in three part harmony, “I’m leaving on a jet plane/don’t know when I’ll be back again/oh babe I hate to go,” and she thought of Danny and wished he were with her instead of her mother, here cuddling her under the airplane blanket, trying to make her smile through her troubles. Looking out the porthole window, she watched the earth drop away beneath them, everything familiar growing smaller and smaller, the details of her life reduced to insignificance in the panoramic landscape below. It was gorgeous and terrifying to leave the ground behind this way.

Last spring, Naomi had been surprised when the new boy in Debate class took an interest in her, stopping by her desk to praise her impassioned speech supporting the grape boycott organized by Cesar Chavez’s Farmworker Movement.

“Great to see how much you care. I haven’t noticed a lot of that around here, yet,” he told her, flipping long bangs out of his eyes.

He waited for her to gather her bookbag and walked with her to Geometry. Danny had moved from Westchester, New York, and he seemed more worldly than many kids at her school, with his talk of New York City, of going to Union Square for anti-war demonstrations, and to the Village to listen to folksingers at the Bitter End. He had heard some of her favorites perform there—Bob Dylan, Joan Baez. He was a mellow, golden boy with floppy blonde hair, who always smelled faintly of chlorine from swim team practice, and whose older parents doted on him and gave him an amazing amount of freedom to come and go as he pleased, unlike Naomi’s.

“They are trying to make it up to me for dragging me here right before my senior year,” he told her. He was miserably homesick for his friends and New York. “It’s just so bland here,” he complained.

She laughed at him and yanked on his bangs. “Yeah, but you fit right into the Midwest, Blondie.”

Danny groaned and wound his fingers through Naomi’s dense curls. “I know it looks that way, but blonde is so boring. There were all kinds of people at my school back home—Puerto Rican kids, Japanese kids, smart Jewish kids like you—not just plain white bread.” He gently pulled Naomi’s hair, bringing her face up close to his. “You feel like home. The only other time I’m happy is in the pool, trying to swim away from here as fast as I can.” He kissed her nose and let her go.

Being chosen by Danny made Naomi insanely glad. It was more than the thrill of being liked by a boy. It was confirmation that she might belong somewhere in the wider world, somewhere different than Hinsdale. That Danny recognized her made Naomi’s heart leap high.

When she first visited his house, Danny’s mother patted her cheek and said, “So you’re the smart girl I keep hearing about. I hope you’ll give my boy a run for his money!”

Naomi had smiled back at her, blushing, as Danny grabbed her hand and pulled her upstairs to his blue bedroom with the swimming trophies lining the wall above his desk. They sat side by side on the blue rag rug. He played Leonard Cohen records and showed her photos of friends in his old yearbook.

Danny made her laugh. In his battered Ford, he drove her to the sorts of places she would never have gone on her own—an old amusement park where they screamed on the rollercoaster, the skating rink where he held her up as her ankles wobbled, the A&W drive-in to drink root-beer floats and feed each other fries dipped in ketchup. Sometimes after school, she sat on the bleachers by the pool and watched him do the backstroke, admiring how he propelled himself through the water, lap after lap, flipping like an otter when he reached the walls. On the rare Saturday when he didn’t have a swim meet, he would come along with her to the housing project where she tutored children in reading. Danny helped them to sound out the longer words and told them terrible jokes when they got restless.

And he touched her. He touched her. Naomi loved Danny’s touch on her skin, the way her too self-conscious mind shut down and her nerves woke up and sang for his hands and mouth, the press of his body close to hers, skin on skin. She trusted their bodies together, seeking each other, soaking up touch, good as the patter of slow rain after drought. She had especially loved the early days of curiously exploring the terrain of each other’s flesh, learning each other inch by inch. But when it finally came to the most intimate act, Danny smoothly plugging his body into hers, she felt more anxious than engaged.

Although it was exciting to feel Danny quake and tremor inside her and then relax in proud satisfaction, Naomi’s body hadn’t figured out how to echo his pleasure. Danny had asked her once or twice if there was anything he could do to help her feel more, but Naomi had shaken her head and whispered, “I don’t know.” She truly didn’t yet know how her body might reach climax with him and she was far too shy and ignorant to even ask what else they might try together. Close as she was to him, she still couldn’t muster the courage to ask him those questions.

Worse, though, when Danny moved inside her, Naomi fretted that she might get pregnant. She couldn’t help it. Pregnant girls were ruined. They were forced to leave high school, shamed, with no hope of college and career. Naomi couldn’t imagine losing those opportunities. Nor could she imagine losing Danny, becoming untouchable again. Danny had assured Naomi that he did know something about sex, that a girl could only get pregnant in the first half of her cycle, so the last part was a safe time. Naomi hadn’t asked how he knew this, but he did have older siblings, and he did have some experience. She only hoped that he was right, since she had no way of confirming it. She knew nothing herself. She hated knowing so very little about her own body, she who prided herself on having the right answers. Ha! Even though she trusted him, she had remained afraid that they would get caught, that she would get pregnant. She had slept with him despite that fear.

Her August period was late, then later. Naomi checked herself for blood each day and grew more anxious as the days ticked by without a stain. She asked Danny to meet her in the little park off Main Street. She sat idly on the old merry-go-round, kicking against the ground to make it turn, watching the scene spin slowly around her, feeling slightly dizzy and sick as she waited for him. She had been thinking and thinking without end for days. She was barely sixteen and he was only eighteen—just kids themselves. She couldn’t imagine herself huge and pregnant and banished from school, let alone what came after that. What it would be like to care for a baby. To live cooped up with a baby. She knew her own mother hadn’t really liked staying home with small children. Naomi might want to do that someday, but not yet, not now.

As she revolved slowly, she caught glimpses of Danny walking across the park toward her. She wondered how he would react to her situation. He gave the merry-go-round a good push and then jumped on and settled himself beside her. He put an arm around her and drew her close.

“What’s wrong, Nomi? I can tell that you’re upset.”

She leaned her face into his neck and inhaled the reassuring scent of him—clean cotton shirt and whiff of chlorine. She thought of him faithfully swimming lengths, back and forth, again and again, training and effort, but going nowhere, a fish in a tank, trapped.

“My period is really late. I’m afraid that I might be pregnant.” She stopped and watched the world come to rest as the merry-go-round slowed to a standstill. His arm tightened around her shoulder, pulling her closer, and he took a few breaths in and out before he spoke.

“Oh Nomi. Oh, no. I thought we were so careful about timing.” He paused and rested his cheek on her head, then spoke again. “What do you want me to do? I’ll do whatever you want me to do.” He was saying all the right things, but his voice shook.

“I’ve been thinking about this,” she told him. “We’re just kids, Danny. I love you. But I’m not ready to get married and have a baby. Maybe someday when we are grown-ups, but not now.” Naomi looked out over toward the swings, dangling empty at this early hour. “I can’t have this baby. Our parents would kill us. Or at least my parents would kill me—yours are probably nicer than that.” She pulled back so that she could look into Danny’s face as she said the next thing. “I want you to help me find a doctor to take care of this. I have money saved from my job to pay for it. I don’t want our parents to ever know.”

“Okay,” he said, color coming back into his face, his arm loosening around her. “I can do that. I will start asking around to see if any of the guys know about a doctor.” He looked into her eyes. “Nomi, I am so sorry that I did this to you. I’ll do all I can.”
She crawled into his lap, and huddled in as close to him as she could get. “It wasn’t all you, you know—even I know that much about biology.”

Someone on the team told Danny about a women’s clinic in Chicago—a place to start—that would give them a referral to New York, where abortion was legal. It sounded like a huge undertaking, but Danny and Naomi plotted about making up some story for their parents and driving all day and night across the country to New York, where Danny had friends who might feed them and let them sleep over, where they might even get to walk around the city together after they took care of this problem. Naomi could almost imagine it as an adventure, the two of them together on the road.

But the sympathetic counselor at the Chicago clinic told them that a minor could only have an abortion in New York when accompanied by a parent. “It’s the law. You’re just sixteen, so you need parental permission. There’s no other way we can offer you treatment.” Naomi shriveled inside at the thought of asking for her parents’ help. She dreaded having her intimate life bared before them as much as she feared their disappointment and punishment. But it was the only way.

Naomi had confessed to her parents that evening. Her mother had barely spoken to her since then. Mrs. Sternberg was famous for her silent treatment. Even when Naomi and Ruth were just little girls, if they fought with each other or talked back or refused to do something, their mother would threaten them, “Just wait until your father gets home and I tell him what you did, young ladies.” And then the silence began. She would glare at them, shoot hurt looks, but refuse to talk, and when the girls apologized over and over, burying their faces in her skirt, she would ignore their words, prying their fingers from her dress, push them away and leave the room. She was a master of the varied uses of silence. She could twist it into a quick thrust between the ribs through the heart, or cast it into a spell that made the girls invisible, inaudible, or feed it to them as a slow poison that made their stomachs hurt for days. Naomi always thought it would be less painful to suffer a loud, direct tongue lashing of hateful words, or even to have her mother hit her and get it over with, than to be shunned in this lingering way.

And now they travelled mutely together on this unspeakable trip to NYC, sandwiched and seat-belted beside each other with no escape. Her mother spoke to her only out of necessity, not love, not even simple kindness, things like “Pack light,” and “You take the window seat.”

They sat wordlessly, only answering the stewardess when she asked them about beverages. “Tea, please, with cream.” “Coke, thanks.”

Although it was uncomfortable to sit so close to her mother in these fixed seats, Naomi was grateful that they faced forward and not toward each other. At least she didn’t have to look into her mother’s face, and they were surrounded by rows and rows of other passengers, not alone together. Mrs. Sternberg tilted her seat back, her eyes either closed or angled above the head in front of her. Naomi leaned her forehead against the window and stared down at the miles and miles of square cropped fields of the Midwest plains—so geometric, flat, and predictable.

She thumbed through the pages of Jane Eyre to where she had left off. Each time she read this worn book, Naomi was fortified by Jane—a plain, bright, orphan girl fiercely determined to make her own way in a harsh society that saw her as worthless. Jane overcame the obstacles and cruelties, returning finally to her beloved at the end of the novel, when he was blind and widowed and able to wed her. Reading about Jane’s suffering usually made Naomi grateful for the comforts and opportunities that she took for granted, but here on this trip with her hostile mother, she fantasized about the freedom of being parentless. But then who would help her? She needed her mother for this.

She wondered what thoughts filled her mother’s head behind those sealed lips. Was she thinking about what a disappointment Naomi had turned out to be as a daughter, that she had seemed like such a good girl for so long, such a good student, so quiet and obedient—and now this? Was she wishing that some other girl was hers instead—maybe Diane or Barbara—girls who hadn’t started to date yet, good girls still? Her mother’s silence wasn’t quiet; it had the loud inner weight of all that won’t be said or asked and today it filled all of the air between their seats with a wall of thorns aimed toward Naomi, distancing and disowning her. When Naomi accidentally pressed her elbow against her mother’s on the armrest, her mom shifted further away into herself as though Naomi were a stranger.

Naomi had long ago learned to keep her own stubborn silence, to guard the soft heart-core of herself. She had learned to hide or lie about anything unacceptable, like touching Danny, like sleeping with Danny. Last summer, in her mom’s car on the way home from her job at the hardware store, her mom had asked pointblank, “Tell me, are you sleeping with Danny? Don’t lie to me, tell me the truth.”

“No, of course not,” Naomi had lied, looking straight out the windshield, away from her mother. “We wouldn’t do that.”

“Tell me the truth. I know you sneak him home after school when I am out. I do your laundry, young lady. I wash your dirty underwear. Sometimes I swear it smells like you have been doing something with that boy.”

Naomi blushed furiously and lied again. “No, Mom, no. It isn’t like that.”

Her mother glared sideways at her and shook her head. “It better not be. I should talk to that boy and his parents.”

“No,” Naomi insisted, mortified. “No, Mom, please don’t.”

Of course she had lied. Her mother didn’t really want to know the truth. She just wanted Naomi to behave. Naomi had tried to avoid being alone with her mother after that.

Here on the plane, flying toward her appointment, Naomi wondered if there might have been any way on earth to have an honest conversation with her mother. What if she could have gone to her mother for information, instead of lying and hiding, worrying about getting caught, and then getting caught? Why was there this conspiracy of adults to keep all information about their own bodies away from teenagers? She was a straight-A student with good research skills, but all of the library books that explained sex were kept on special shelves, behind the front-desk librarians who were friends with her mother. Naomi had never seen anatomically correct images of male and female bodies. Her mother wouldn’t even let her have a Barbie doll when she was younger because of the breasts. Naomi could only have Barbie’s little undeveloped sister, Skipper. None of Naomi’s friends had any experience with sex, or any information about sex. Good girls in Hinsdale, Illinois didn’t have sex. Although the Summer of Love had happened a couple years ago in Haight-Ashbury, California, it hadn’t come to Hinsdale. On the TV news that summer, Naomi had glimpsed crowds of hippies dancing in the streets, hands and faces raised to the sky and bodies loose inside gauzy clothes, longhaired hippie boys and girls kissing openmouthed, flashing peace signs to the cameras and chanting, “Make love, not war.” But here in Hinsdale, sex was still secret. There was so much Naomi hadn’t known. So much she had gotten wrong. So much she wished she could have asked someone, anyone.

She hated the silences. She didn’t yet realize that she wouldn’t be able to simply step beyond silence and deception like a too stiff coat that she unbuttoned and dropped on the floor. She would have to pry her way out slowly, one difficult conversation after another, taking apart her leaden suit of armor from the inside, with only a pair of wire snips—one metal plate at a time. It would be a long, slow, bloody process.

The pilot’s voice spoke to the cabin through the buzzy loudspeakers, explaining that they would be flying over the Poconos and Finger Lakes and that there might be some turbulence. Mrs. Sternberg sighed and shifted her long legs, took a deep breath, stretched her fingers open, like starfish, and then clutched the armrests again, stalwart, as though her grip would keep the plane on course and safe through bumpy weather. Mrs. Sternberg liked to be in the driver’s seat, in charge. Naomi’s dad jokingly called her “the balabusta”—Yiddish for “the big boss in charge.”

She had certainly taken charge of Naomi’s problem after she had confessed. The next day she ushered Naomi and Danny outside the house to the picnic table in the backyard for their parley session—a private spot where no one could overhear. Mrs. Sternberg sat tall and severe across the table, her eyes sweeping back and forth between the two of them, a lighthouse beacon that would illuminate hazards and lies. Naomi longed to clutch Danny’s hand under the table and pull him close, but she knew that the smallest touch would just make her mother more furious, so she and Danny sat spaced apart, looking away from each other, toward her mother’s disappointed face. They needed her help, so they must acquiesce to whatever she demanded. She lectured them on their failings, their deceptions and dishonor. She lambasted Danny for misusing her daughter, and Naomi for being untrustworthy. Then she laid out her terms.

“Here’s the deal. I fly Naomi to New York to have the procedure. You two swear never to tell anyone about any of this whole sordid mess. And you promise me that you will never have sex with each other again.”

She glared at Danny. “If I find that you have broken your word, I will tell your parents what you have done to my daughter. They won’t think so much of you after that.”

She turned to Naomi. “If I find that you are sleeping with this boy again, I don’t know what I will do to you, but whatever it is, it won’t be pretty. You can count on that. So, do you both promise?”

Naomi and Danny nodded dumbly. What could they possibly say? Naomi’s mother heaved herself off of the picnic bench and loomed over them. “Well then, we have an agreement. Keep your word.” She brushed off the seat of her pants and walked away.

Naomi buried her face in her arms, her forehead resting on the rough wood of the table where she had had so many childhood birthday celebrations—cake, candles, silly hats. “Oh my God. I feel so humiliated,” she moaned quietly into her arms. As she sensed Danny’s hand moving toward her, she warned, “Don’t touch me, don’t come near me. She may be watching.”

“I’m sorry, Naomi,” Danny whispered to her, “so, so sorry.”

They hadn’t done more than hug and hold hands since that day. Nor had they talked about what would happen after this trip. Talking had become awkward. She wouldn’t ever trust Danny so easily after this. And while she didn’t want his parents to know about the pregnancy, she couldn’t help but resent how he got off scot free with his family, unlike herself. Naomi knew that this whole misery would stain everything between the two of them from now on.

The taxi ride from the airport was more strained silence. The driver tried to draw her mother out but she just gave clipped answers until he understood that she didn’t want to chat.

“So, where are you ladies from?”

“Hinsdale, Illinois. You probably haven’t heard of it.”

“Can’t say that I have. So what brings you two to the Big Apple?”

“Just a quiet trip together.”

“Quiet, huh,” he laughed, but he left them to gaze out the windows and think their thoughts as he wove through the massive highways and into the towers of Manhattan.

Being on the ground in this city made Naomi viscerally afraid. She stared blankly out the side window at the high-rise buildings and the streets filled with cars jockeying to get somewhere else as fast as possible. Now that she was nearing the clinic after weeks of not allowing herself to imagine this appointment, her body tensed. The blood rushed too fast through the arteries in her neck and washed in waves through her ears. Her stomach dropped as the taxi wove through traffic. Naomi told herself that someday she and Danny would come back here and go to all the spots that he loved, places haloed with bright possibility. She folded her hands together in her lap and tried to calm herself, while Mrs. Sternberg looked stubbornly away, no sympathy to be found there.

The cold stirrups held Naomi’s legs splayed indecently and the paper crinkled as she scrunched her bottom to the end of the table. She watched the ceiling as the doctor’s jellied hand opened her for examination. The nurse took her hand and gave a gentle squeeze, drawing Naomi’s focus away from the doctor’s business with her body.

“How are you doing, honey?”

The nurse’s skin was warm in the chilly room. As the doctor inserted cold metal implements into Naomi’s most tender parts and explained the procedure from down between her legs, Naomi looked into the nurse’s kind brown face.

“Breathe and try to relax. Squeeze my hand if you need to. This will all be over before you know it.”

When Naomi winced as the doctor dilated her cervix, the nurse leaned toward her and stroked her hair, tugging along the twisty curls, again and again.

“You got such pretty, pretty hair, sweet girl,” she crooned. “Breathe.”

Her human kindness softened Naomi, who for weeks had braced herself against fears and shame. She started to cry, silently, keeping her body as still as possible while the doctor worked. She cried for herself and for the tiny spark that she was extinguishing, for all of them, all of them who had blundered together toward this moment. She wept with relief that this would all soon be over, and she held herself still through the pain.

“Breathe,” the nurse repeated, “just breathe.”

Afterward, back in their hotel room, her mother pulled the heavy curtains closed and tucked Naomi into bed with a heating pad against her belly. Mrs. Sternberg smoothed the bedspread over her daughter, put a wad of Kleenex into her hand, and touched the back of her wrist to Naomi’s forehead, checking for fever. Naomi continued to weep.

“Cry it out now,” her mother told her firmly. “It’s over and done. Clean slate. We will never speak of this again.”

And they didn’t speak of it on the flight back or once they arrived at home. They just pretended to be tired from their escapades in the city, and Naomi hid out in her room. She made one hushed phone call to Danny, to let him know she was okay, but too wiped out to talk about the entire trip yet. She promised to call again soon. The rest of the time she kept quietly to herself. She wasn’t ready to fabricate happy stories for her sister, Ruthie, or for her friends.

But the body doesn’t lie. The body speaks its own truth. Naomi still oozed a thick mix of blood and mucous that dripped down onto an awkward pad between her legs. Monday evening, she made sure to put on a fresh pad before obligingly going with her family to a Sukkot gathering at her parents’ friends’ home on the outskirts of town. The Cohens had built a Sukkah in their backyard—an open-roofed, temporary frame structure hung with leaves and fruit to celebrate the bounty of the harvest. A few Jewish families in her parents’ social circle crowded into the Sukkah to sing a blessing for these fruits, to drink a ritual sip of thick, overly sweet wine and eat bites of apple cake dusted with cinnamon.

As Naomi looked up at the first stars just brightening through the darkening sky, she felt a startling burst of milk leak out each nipple, soaking through her bra and dress in wet circles. She quickly crossed her arms over her chest and pressed her breasts tight, trying to hide this telltale evidence of what her body had been through. Naomi stood hugging herself—ashamed, bereft, freed, and alone. Without a word to anyone, she ducked out of the celebration and walked her emptied, leaking body along the dusky streets toward home.

Rachel Stein is a recovering professor of English and Women’s Studies getting reacquainted with the right side of her brain. She is working on linked stories that explore social awakenings and movements.

About The Silent Treatment—This story arose from study of narration and character, which helped me to make stronger decisions about how to tell an unspeakable story and stay true to the limitations of knowledge imposed by the time period in which it is set.