As Joe watched Nati pass by through the windows, his head suddenly felt very heavy. He didn’t know what Nati meant by his parting statement, but he was too bothered by a different piece of their conversation to dwell on it. Little did Nati know that mentioning Rebecca’s name would affect Joe so much, as to consume his thoughts for the rest of his way home. He and Rebecca Hoffman had been in the same grade, in the same honors classes, in the same Jewish day school from first grade and all throughout high school, living two streets apart but knowing very little about each other. They were both “overachievers,” smart kids who focused their time and attention on studying and academic achievement and didn’t devote their time to thinking about relationships in the way teenagers their age did. At least Joe never thought anything more about her; he was too busy filling his college applications with positive accomplishments.
Everything changed when their whole class went to Poland for its post-graduation senior trip. Their school was unique in that the seniors took all their required coursework by January and spent the remainder of the spring term in Israel, along the way subduing their hearts with the perfunctory March of the Living. With all the college applications in and their diplomas merely awaiting print, Joe and Rebecca were able to finally meet, now released from the constant preparation for the next test or project. On the plane they found that they had a lot in common, finally able to talk when before they had never exchanged more than a quick chat or schoolwork assistance. This gave them each someone to share the emotional onslaught that comes with touring post-war Poland, and by the time their class reached Israel, they were deeply attached. They walked together on hikes, ate together, requested to be assigned the same tasks together when they volunteered, all the while believing that they were different than their peers in having saved their first relationship for the mature age of seventeen.
Their bliss was tested when the acceptance letters reached home in early April and everyone’s parents relayed the results. Rebecca had been accepted to her first choice at Harvard, but Joe’s shooting for the moon with MIT hadn’t worked out, his only remaining options being his mother’s alma mater at NYU or College Park. At first Rebecca decided to go to Columbia so they could both be in Manhattan, but Joe refused to let her settle and turn down her first choice. Only after a week of debating Rebecca agreed to allow them to matriculate five hours apart. However close they now were, they’d only really been together a few months and Joe didn’t feel that it was enough to risk her entire future on their short relationship. Though she appeared to understand that he was only thinking of her best interests, he worried whether she inwardly translated his adamancy to suggest that he really didn’t want to be with her, and from then he realized that their relationship would need to answer the looming serious question.
However, she never granted them the chance to ask it. When she surprised him a few days later by telling him that she would be returning home for Passover, he knew that she was already giving up on whatever they had built. Why should they continue to string each other along when the inevitable distance would do its damage in a few months? He didn‘t fight her. He accompanied her to the airport, the two of them silently staring out the bus window at the Negev Desert in the night, mentally preparing for what would come. For three months they had never been more than a few meters apart, and now each sand dune the streetlights illuminated denoted another step towards separation. He struggled with his decision even as they waited for her boarding pass. Was he doing the right thing? Would they give it a shot if he would try to convince her? Was anyone else in the throng of people at the terminal also passing such an ordeal? They promised to call, a last attempt at denying the truth of the moment, and Rebecca looked him in the eye to give him one last chance.
“I love you Joe,” she said for the first time. “I had the best time of my life and I’ll never forget it.”
“Neither will I,” he said back.
There were a number of minutes while she probably waited for him to say three different last words but he didn’t. She finally turned and went, tears soaking both of her cheeks. He loved her too much to not let her live her own life, and when she finally disappeared from his sight he resolved to never forget his sacrifice. He tried to return to his classmates but everything reminded him of her. When his father’s cousin invited him to Jerusalem for the sedarim, he packed all of his things and bid everyone farewell. It was more than opportune that he would meet an MIT graduate at the second-day minyan who persuaded Joe into spending his summer learning in yeshiva; Joe was doubly relieved to have a pretext to explain why he wasn’t going back to volunteering. His short experience in yeshiva gave him a new and invigorating perspective on Judaism, and he left for home with a kippah permanently atop his head and a desire to learn more. Still, he didn’t forget the fondness that he had towards Rebecca and longed to meet up with her once he returned to Potomac. They kept in touch through e-mail and even got together the day after he got back, but without the original tenderness to blind him, Joe was turned off by Rebecca’s lack of enthusiasm towards his new religious lifestyle. He never forgot the first moment when they saw each other after four months and she just stared at his black velvet kippah, without even saying hello, for five embarrassing seconds. From then, Joe started college knowing that he’d made the right decision.
Now she was getting married. In his three years dorming at NYU, he had been trying to fill the void left by Rebecca with a religious girl, and all his attempts had proven to be failures. He had thought religious girls would be similarly seeking a committed guy and yet they only seemed to want someone to hang out with and have a good time. He knew from Rebecca that he couldn’t be satisfied with silly flings or with girls who weren’t serious about eventually committing, but as he grew older he was becoming frustrated at not getting anywhere in his pursuit. He’d followed all of Sharon’s advice and yet never seemed to find the right girl. Joe now felt worse being in last place, knowing that Rebecca had already reached the finish line.
Only when Joe heard the conductor’s announcement did he realize that the train had reached Avenue J. With a jolt, he jumped up and leaped out the door as the closing bell was ringing. The time was just about five and he dashed down the stairs and up the street to Gourmet on J. He was able to obtain a small portion of roast chicken and a kugel as they were putting the food away and afterwards headed towards Duane Reade for drinks and other supplies. In the paper goods aisle, his mother called him.
“How are you doing, Joe?” she asked him, in a way that reminded him of the stereotypical therapy session. “How was your week?”
“Fine. I’ve been catching up at work.”
“That’s good. Where are you for Shabbos?”
“Home.” He examined the selection of plates with a pensive glance. “Right now I’m trying to choose paper plates.”
“Get the coated ones.”
“They’re twice the price!”
“They don’t fall apart.”
He grunted. “I don’t have the money for such luxuries.”
“You didn’t want to go to Sharon?”
Ever since Sharon invited him to her parents’ house for Shabbos when he had a final one Friday before Winter Break, his mother thought they must’ve spent every Shabbos together. “Nope,” he said decisively.
“I do have a life here in Brooklyn, you know,” he said indignantly. “Besides, it’s not like I have a standing invitation to crash by her neighbors.”
“I just thought that it was somewhat lonely with your roommate gone.”
Realizing that he probably spoke too harshly with his mother, he admitted, “Sometimes it feels that way.”
“What are you going to do?”
“My landlords aren’t insisting I find anyone,” then adding, “yet.”
“That’s nice of them.”
“Yeah, it is.” He picked his brand—the cheapest—and started towards the checkout. “What are you doing for Shabbos? Is dad home yet?”
“No, not yet. We might go up to Ellen and Michael tonight, depending on how he feels. It’s been a long week for him, too.”
“Yeah,” Joe said distractedly. He was standing in front of the Snapple stand, figuring out how he would be able to grab a bottle while talking on his phone and holding his Gourmet on J shopping bag and paper plates in the other hand.
Then his mother said, “I found out today that Rebecca Hoffman is getting married in two weeks. Did you know about this?”
As he clenched his phone between his ear and his shoulder to reach for a bottle of raspberry Snapple, he answered in a strained voice, “I just heard about it.”
“Well, I take it that you aren’t going. Did you get an invitation?” He could sense from his mother’s tone that she felt snubbed.
“No, but don’t think Mrs. Hoffman has anything against you. She probably…there’s a good reason I didn’t get invited.”
“Why? I thought you two were good friends. You got together with her when you came down.”
“Not in a long time,” he stated. He knew he would have to explain at least some of the story to his mother to prevent her from bearing a grudge against Rebecca’s mother.
However, he was standing in Duane Reade with his hands full and Shabbos fast approaching. “I never told you what happened between me and Rebecca, mom. We became…pretty close in Israel.”
“Oh,” she said, followed by a long silence. Joe chose his drink and got on a checkout line behind a religious man who reminded him of Mr. Siegel.
“But that was years ago. It still isn’t awkward between you, right?”
“No, but…I guess…I can’t really speak for her but it wasn’t, like, an easy break. Not like that.”
“I see. I’m sorry. Is it hard for you to hear she’s getting married?”
“No,” he sighed. “I wish her much success and happiness.”
“What about you? Are you dating anyone?”
How ironic that we have never spoken about this area of my life until today. “Look, I’m standing in Duane Reade with my hands full. Can I call you back?”
“Certainly, dear. I know that it’s probably hard to talk about it.”
“It is, especially in public.” The Mr. Siegel look-alike turned around and glared at Joe.
“I’ll try to call when I get home.”
“Whenever you’re settled.”
A bus drove past as he left the pharmacy, so he painstakingly walked the dozen or so blocks to his street in the thick humidity. At home, he dropped his bags on the table and fell into his bed.
Some time later he woke up with a jerk—his first instinct was to make sure he didn’t sleep into Shabbos and miss davening. With only twenty minutes until candle-lighting, he quickly set the timer on his toaster oven and slid the chicken and kugel inside. If an invite didn’t pan out he would at least have warm food. He jumped in the shower and emerged to shave with his electric shaver with ten minutes before candle-lighting. He got dressed in his Shabbos suit and turned off the fridge light while fumbling with his tie. With no woman to light for him, he lit two tiny tea lights and went to mincha, leaving his key hidden in its Shabbos hiding-place to the side of the door behind a broken lantern.
Davening was an exercise in anxiety because as each congregant entered the shul Joe turned towards the door to see if his hope for an invite would be fulfilled. He was a regular at two neighborhood benefactors who davened at this shul, but neither of them had arrived yet and things weren’t looking too good. Joe was beginning to resolve to enjoy his warm dinner when he saw Mr. Gruberman, his upstairs neighbor and landlord, clamor into the shul and begin his silent Amidah. While he could always count on Mr. Gruberman to cajole Joe into joining their meal, he didn’t want to get into any awkward situation were Daniela to also be there and so he’d wait for Mr. Gruberman to make the offer. Joe enjoyed the rest of the davening with at least the thought that he didn’t choose the wrong shul.
Afterwards Joe confidently went over to wish Mr. Gruberman a Good Shabbos. He was very happy with his landlord, a stocky but jovial man in his late forties with a full head of short silvering hair who wore starched cufflink shirts everyday, but never with a tie. The Grubermans, both husband and wife, were lawyers, and spent their wealth on lavish Shabbos meals with many dishes and many guests. Because of his physical condition, Mr. Gruberman could no longer indulge in his wife’s delicacies as much as he had at the beginning of their marriage, but he didn’t allow his limitations to affect his guests’ oneg Shabbos and passed around dishes he couldn’t eat without a touch of sorrow. There were Hassidim somewhere in his ancestry and Joe had to politely refuse after his first l’haim, which he only downed to please his host’s desire to give.
As Joe approached, Mr. Gruberman was shaking hands and smiling widely at the chazzan. “I haven’t heard that niggin in two years,” he told him. “If you come back here in a month I’ll get you up to sing it for me again.”
“Why only a month?” the chazzan asked him, noticing Joe
and giving him a wink.
“Because you aren’t a member.” Without turning, Mr. Gruberman let go of the chazzan’s hand and reached for Joe’s, grasping it so that Joe couldn’t move. “Once you start paying dues, maybe you’ll get a more regular gig.”
“I’ll think about it,” the chazzan replied as he turned towards the exit.
“Please do.” Then he released Joe’s arm but engaged his attention. “What about you, Joe? When are you going to start paying dues?”
“I’m a transient, unencumbered.”
“That’s exactly my question.” Mr. Gruberman gave Joe a look that basically asked nu? “How was Shavuos?”
“You learned all night?”
Joe made a face. “I was awake. I learned most of the time.”
“That sounds about right. Are you joining us?”
“You mean on the walk home?”
“Yes, to my home.” He indicated the door.
“Your wife invited me earlier in the week but I didn’t speak to her since.”
Mr. Gruberman countered Joe’s doubt with his raised hand.
“Doesn’t matter. You know you don’t need an invitation.”
Joe wasn’t sure whether Mr. Gruberman was in on the whole Daniela thing. He therefore confirmed, “Your wife asked to see if I’m coming?”
Mr. Gruberman walked towards the door. “I don’t need her approval to invite one of our children,” he said. As he walked out, he shook hands with everyone he passed. Over his shoulder, he beckoned Joe. “Come, it’s late enough.”
Joe still didn’t know whether Mr. Gruberman was warmly assuring Joe that he had nothing to worry about or whether he was overriding anything his wife might’ve told him. With no way to find out he acceded to at least accompany him to his house and perhaps gage the issue on the way.
As they stepped out the door they were approached by another regular of the Grubermans who Joe had met on several previous occasions. This guy was older than Joe, somewhere in his mid-thirties, an ambitious lawyer who quickly engaged Mr. Gruberman in some political discussion that Joe listened to with vague interest.
When they reached the house, the man bid them farewell with an explanation that he’d made other plans. Mr. Gruberman scolded the man for getting his hopes up. “I thought you’d keep me company. Yosef always seems to be occupied with the women.”
“And what about me?” he asked as he walked down the block.
“Throw me a bone and invite some women my age.”
“Take some time off,” Mr. Gruberman called to him. Then, more quietly, he added, “he’s too busy to even look for a wife.” He turned off the sidewalk and onto the thin stone path alongside the front room towards the side-door entrance. As he walked, he said, “that goes for you too, Yosef. I want to make a l’haim already and get back a second tenant into my basement—and I don’t mean another guy, if you catch my drift.”
“I’m too busy for a wife,” Joe quipped. “I still have to finish my graduate degree.”
“Feh,” Mr. Gruberman dismissed Joe’s claim with a wave of his hand. “It’s the summer. Find yourself a wife.”
“I’m trying,” Joe answered, then admitting, “I’ve been trying for years.”
“Have you been to a shadchan?”
Joe looked away, not wanting to get into a debate. Mr. Gruberman didn’t pursue the matter any further. “Well, you never know,” he said encouragingly. “Maybe something will happen soon.”
Joe sighed. “It’s always maybe.”
Mr. Gruberman opened the door and the two of them were hit with cool air from the AC and an aroma of chicken soup blending with potpourri. To the left was the stairway to the second floor and after it a hallway to the kitchen and the back of the house. Immediately in front of them was the small outlet of the front room that met the dining room and the foyer in which they presently stood.
Joe lingered in the foyer while Mr. Gruberman closed the door, the loud crash resonating to the kitchen. “Good Shabbos Tatty!” they heard Mrs. Gruberman’s voice call from the kitchen, shortly followed by the thumps of teenage feet clunking down the wooden stairs.
“Good Shabbos Shira-leh!” Mr. Gruberman said to his youngest daughter as she landed into him. “What are you doing with your bas mitzvah album?”
“I’m showing it to Daniela,” she replied proudly. She was a just-turned-teenager who had energy to spare, addressing Joe with a number of waves and a wide show of her braces. Joe mustered a strained smile as he suddenly felt an entire butterfly exhibit move into his gut. Daniela was here!
“She’s never seen it?” Mr. Gruberman asked wondrously to his daughter.
“Nope. I mean, I couldn’t find it for, like, a year, but she asked and I looked.”
“Shira, could you come here?” Mrs. Gruberman called from the kitchen.
She made a teenage face of annoyance, but Mr. Gruberman gently took her shoulders and marched her towards the kitchen.
“Daniela isn’t going anywhere,” he assured her as they headed down the hallway. “Joe, make yourself comfortable.”
He turned towards the living room, waiting for some prompt that would tell him how to act. He was hoping his hosts would realize the awkward situation in the making and somehow Mr. Gruberman would excuse Joe with a rain-check and let him silently slip out without Daniela knowing he’d even entered the house.
However, when he heard Mr. Gruberman’s loud voice echo from the kitchen, saying, “I know what you told me but Joe’s as much a regular here…” he figured that Daniela had also heard and he might as well face her. He lifted his foot but stopped in mid-step when he heard female voices in the living room.
“I’m TELLing you,” Daniela said emphatically, “I’m not even THINKing of dating now.”
That confirms Mrs. Gruberman’s story. Joe felt as if eavesdropping on their conversation was violating some type of derech eretz, but since they were brazen enough to speak so candidly in earshot of others, and he wanted to hear more, he resumed his position in the front hallway and listened without moving.
“Yeah, sure,” came the voice of Aliza Gruberman, age eighteen. “You’re probably inundated with suggestions.”
“From where do you know a word like ‘inundated’?”
“Nu, come on. I thought we were friends,” Aliza whined.
“We are. I’m telling you the truth.”
“No you’re not.”
“Why? What do you know?”
“What do you mean?”
There was a pause. Eventually, Daniela said, “Nothing.”
“You’re lying. What am I supposed to know?”
“No, I can’t say.”
“Come on! You can tell me!”
“Yeah! Tell me…you were suggested someone? I know the person?”
Daniela lowered her voice and Joe crept up to the corner of the foyer to hear. “You know that guy that comes here? I think he lives on your block.”
“Who? Joe?” Another pause. “Really? Who suggested?”
“I could see that. ”Really?”
“Yeah. He’s a good guy—he works, has a degree, and he learns. Plus he’s from out-of-town.”
“Whatever that’s supposed to mean.”
“Fine, right. So, what did you say?” Another pause. “Why?”
Yeah, why? Joe also wanted to know.
“I don’t know,” Daniela said slowly. “I thought…when I first met him here, but then…I don’t know…”
Joe’s heart was beating like an African drum circle, so much that he feared the girls in the other room could hear it. He was confused; was she interested at all in finding a guy or not? Why was she even scrutinizing him at all if she was so busy? It sounded as if their conversations had been potentially more than friendly, but then what had she said before about not even thinking about guys? He needed to sort out these incongruent statements, and he certainly couldn’t do that during the meal.
Then Mr. Gruberman made his presence in the dining room known by dragging his chair from under the table. “Aliza,” his voice beckoned, “just because you’ve nearly graduated and are going to Israel in two months, you aren’t excused from helping mommy.”
“I was entertaining our guest,” Aliza explained.
“Oh, well then,” he replied. “Good Shabbos Daniela. Where’s Joe?”
“Joe?” Daniela asked nervously. “What Joe?”
“What Joe? Is there any other Joe we know? Ha, a rhyme!
Didn’t he come in?”
“No,” the girls answered together.
Joe knew that if he didn’t think of something fast, the girls would assume that he’d heard everything. He was beginning to shake as Mr. Gruberman called, “Joe? Are you still in the hallway?”
On an impulse, he opened the front door from the inside and closed it a second later, loud enough to make an echoing slam. He hesitated a second, until he heard Mr. Gruberman ask, “Is that you coming in, Joe?”
“Yeah,” he called to the dining room. “I’m sorry. I…uh, had to go downstairs for a minute.” As he walked towards the dining room, he deliberately avoided making any glances towards Daniela and Aliza on the couch. “I had a kugel in the toaster that I didn’t want to get super-dry. Were you waiting for me?”
“No. We’re a bit behind—thanks to our growing young women.”
Joe then turned towards the couch to find the two girls sitting there motionless with blank expressions on their faces as if they had been spared tremendous embarrassment. He gave the most unassuming “good Shabbos” he could muster, which they meekly responded to.
“Why did you have a kugel in the toaster?” Mr. Gruberman then asked him. “Don’t you know you’re always invited here?”
“I do. But…I didn’t know if I’d find you on the corner or at the shteibel.”
“Nah,” he dismissed Joe’s claim with the wave of his hand.
“Come sing Shalom Aleichem with me. But don’t pull any harmonies.”
“It’ll be enough for me to stay on key,” Joe said as he took his normal seat.
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