Chapter Seventeen, Part Two
Joe got out of the elevator on Saturday night on the twelfth floor and dragged himself over to the apartment at the end of the hallway. He was clammy and exhausted and only wanted to sit down. He knocked on the door and leaned against the mantle as he waited. Pressing his ear against the door, he heard nothing from the other side. Someone better be home, he thought hopefully. He waited a minute before knocking louder and falling to the floor. As he sat in the still quiet of the hallway, he became aware of the sounds of a televised baseball game from the adjacent apartment. The third time he pounded the door with his fist, the reverberations carrying down the hallway. Only when he started drumming a marching-band rhythm did the door unlock and Avi Glass appeared in the doorway.
“I was in the bathroom,” he explained lethargically. He looked all around before finding Joe on the floor. “How long have you been sitting here?”
“Who’s counting?” Joe exhaled, hoisting himself up.
“Sorry,” Avi said, wrapping his arm around Joe to help him in. Avi was one of Sharon’s upstairs neighbors, a tall, lanky guy with curly brown hair and thick glasses. He was already dressed down in shorts and a T-shirt that had the San Antonio Spurs logo under Hebrew letters spelling the name of the team. “We already made havdalah.”
“I heard it in shul,” Joe explained as he gently pushed away Avi’s hand and hobbled into the apartment, loosening his tie.
“Which shul?” Joe told him the name. “You were all the way over there?”
Joe stood in place and sighed. “Don’t ask. We were walking back after the whole aufruf meal when we saw some people going to the park, so we went to the park,” he sighed again, “and then it was late so we rushed to the closest shul where they had this whole spread for shalosh seudos, so…yeah.”
“Who’s the redhead?” Avi asked.
Joe dragged the closest chair from the dining table and, as if suddenly relieved of a tremendous burden, fell into it and rested his head between his outstretched arms on the table. “Erica. Sharon knows her from high school, but I knew her from NYU…I mean, she went to Cooper Union, but…” After a sigh, he continued, “I basically chaperoned while Sharon entertained her boyfriend.”
“You must’ve hit it off with her,” Avi then said.
Joe slowly turned his face to show Avi a sneer. “What makes you say that?”
Avi sat on the arm of the couch. “I don’t know anything about anything, but judging by when you returned last night, I can’t imagine you were an unwilling chaperone all that time.”
Joe straightened and nodded in reluctant agreement. He slid his suit jacket off his shoulders and folded it over the back of the chair. “You’re going to play now?” he asked Avi.
“Every Saturday night. It keeps me in shape.”
“I hear,” Joe said. Avi was still standing around, apparently waiting for a confirmation to his observation. “Yeah, it looks that way, doesn’t it?”
“What looks that way?”
“That I had a good time with Erica.”
“Only looks like?”
“Brilliant deduction, Watson,” Joe said cynically. Rubbing his eyes, he confessed, “I’m kind of dating someone at the moment.”
Nothing was said for a few moments, until Eitan made an elated cheer from his room. “He’s watching the game,” Avi explained. “What do you mean ‘kind of’?”
“I’ve been on two dates and am going out again tomorrow.”
“It’s a shidduch?” Joe nodded. “So what’s with Erica—?”
“There’s nothing,” interrupted Joe. He laughed a bit. “I knew all along.”
“Just say you’re uninterested.”
“It’s not so simple.”
Another few silent moments passed. Each of them had found a spot in the room to stare at. Joe had no idea what would make Avi so pensive, but he accepted the empathy.
“What do you think,” Joe started to ask. “You have a minute, Avi?”
“Yeah,” he said, sliding off the arm and dropping into the couch. “A minute.”
Joe tapped his fingers against his cheek. “I mean, I’m not going to throw away a shidduch because of one pretty girl…you saw her, right?”
Avi nodded and winked. “Whew!”
Joe smiled and exhaled. “I know. But I’m worried that I won’t be able to continue dating with the same…without comparing. You hear what I’m getting at?”
Avi stretched his arms. “If you aren’t excited by the girl you’re dating—”
“But a shidduch’s more than that. You aren’t just sizing up your attraction level after each date. It develops over time.”
“OK.” Avi gave him a blank look. “So?”
“So how can I be objective when I’m knocked out by a pretty girl?”
Eitan made a loud groan from the other room.
“What happened?” Avi screamed down the hallway.
“Caught at the wall,” Eitan called back. “Mets had three on base.”
“Sorry,” Avi said, laughing to himself. He turned back to Joe. “What were you saying? Oh yeah. Is there nothing else to this redhead? Nothing else you liked?”
Joe propped up his head with his hand as he thought. “Why?” he eventually asked.
Just then Avi’s phone began to ring in the other room. “I don’t know how a shidduch works,” he said as he stood up, “but it’s never good to have feelings for two girls. Choose one and forget all others. My father told me that.”
As he left the room, Joe dropped his head onto the table and sighed. Behind the backdrop of a clicking clock he heard a car alarm blare for seven seconds before being silenced, then the flush of a toilet from the floor above. Then nothing. When Avi returned, Joe didn’t pick up his head but opened one eye. Avi had a backpack on his shoulder.
“That’s my cue,” he said. “Go home and sleep on this. Don’t get any more confused.”
“Don’t worry. I don’t know if I’ll be back here ever again.”
“Never say never,” Avi asserted. “My father taught me that too.”
Joe silently agreed. “Thank you, Avi. For Shabbos, for the advice.”
Avi simply smiled. “Eitan is still here, so he’ll lock up.”
“By the way,” Joe added. “Don’t tell anyone about, well, about anything.”
“You got it,” he promised, “but no one talks to me anyway.”
When the door closed, Joe rested his head between his outstretched arms on the table, remaining motionless for what felt like a long time. In his state of doubt he preferred sulking over the past rather than contemplating the future.
Eventually he carried himself over to Steven Broder’s room where he’d slept the night before and turned on the light. He fell onto the bed in his clothing and reached over to grab his phone from the desk. He saw a missed call and a voice message. It was from Mrs. Rosenzweig: “Gut voch Joseph, this is Penina Rosenzweig. I spoke with Rachel just before Shabbos and didn’t have a chance to get back to you sooner, but she wanted to push your meeting tomorrow to an earlier time, perhaps noon. Please get back to me this evening, thank you. Kol tuv.”
Joe closed the phone and threw it in the direction of Steven’s paper garbage bin. He remained motionless for some time, stirring when he heard the baseball game turn off and Eitan open the door to his room.
“Hey Joe,” Eitan called into the hall. “You still here?”
“Yeah,” Joe murmured quietly, then with more volume, “Yeah, I’m here.”
Eitan came to the doorway and saw Joe spread out on the bed. He was dressed in a black collared shirt with black wool pants and black leather slip-ons. “I’m going out for a while. Do you want my key or will you be leaving tonight?”
Joe didn’t move at first, but then forced himself to sit up. “Let me get my things and I’ll leave with you.”
“OK, but it’s gotta be now, like…” he looked at his watch, “right now.”
“Even better,” Joe told him.
Eitan took a step towards the bed. “Is everything all right? You look as if you’ve been whacked by a baseball bat.”
“Just reality,” Joe admitted. Eitan nodded, perhaps understanding, and then returned to his room. Joe didn’t have much to pack, but he still set Steven’s room quickly and two minutes later was standing by the door with his duffel bag on his shoulder and his phone in his hand.
“I’m ready,” he called to Eitan.
“What’s the rush?” Eitan asked as he came towards him. “Not hanging out with Sharon tonight?”
“No,” Joe said decisively, catching a strong gust of Cool Water as Eitan stood to lock the door. “I have to get back to Brooklyn.”
“You like living there?” Eitan asked him as they walked towards the elevator. “It’s mostly families, no?”
That isn’t necessarily a bad thing. “I rent a cheap basement, it’s an easy commute to work and school, and it’s a nice community.”
“If you like it,” Eitan commented. “I have family who live by Avenue I and Bedford.”
“That’s not far from me.”
“Really? You live in a mansion too?”
Joe shook his head vigorously. “Just in the basement of one.”
“I couldn’t see myself living there.”
“It’s not for everybody,” Joe admitted. “Neither is this community.”
Eitan agreed with a nod of his head. The elevator came and they got in. Just then Eitan smacked his head. “I forgot my Metrocard. Will you hold the elevator?”
As he waited alone in the silent hallway, he could hear his heart pounding. He had never done anything so sneaky to Sharon, fleeing without telling her, and he could only imagine what her face would look like if she would catch him. But she wasn’t his most favorite person at that moment. After a minute Eitan returned; they rode down together and parted at the lobby.
Even as he walked the streets towards the subway Joe still felt apprehensive, waiting for the dreaded call. To distract himself, Joe flipped open his phone and called Mrs. Rosenzweig. Her young daughter answered.
“Shavua tov,” he said. “Is your mother at home?”
“No,” she said. There were voices in the background.
He was shooting a look at every dark corner, scared Sharon would pop out like the monsters in an amusement park haunted house. “Do you know when she’ll be home?” he asked.
He heard someone say from afar, “Shoshanna, who’s on the phone?” to which the girl said, “I don’t know.” Then the voice came closer, saying, “Give me the phone and go to sleep,” then to Joe, “Hello.”
“Is Mrs. Rosenzweig in?”
“Joe…seph Charnoff,” he answered. He didn’t know whether he had to maintain privacy with everybody, but he had to explain why he was calling. “Mrs. Rosenzweig told me to call her.”
“Is this about a shidduch? She stepped out. Can she call you back later?”
He was relieved that she broke the ice. “Sure. She has my number.”
“Yosef Charnoff, you said?”
“Joseph, whatever. But I’m going to the train—”
Whether she heard him or not, she quickly said, “OK, bye.” She hung up.
His next call was to Rabbi Tzvi, who didn’t answer. He had already reached Broadway and was crossing the downtown direction, waiting for the light at a median with a few benches and enough space to pace as he left the Rabbi a harried message. In the middle, Joe felt the pulsating vibration of another call. It was Sharon. Suddenly incredible pangs of guilt caused him to halt in midstride. He walked over to a bench and sat down, in order to ground himself for the shock, and answered her call.
“Hello,” he said dryly into the phone.
“Where are you?” Sharon demanded. “We’ve been pounding on the door for five minutes.”
“I had to run,” he answered. “I need to get back to Brooklyn right away.”
“Is everything all right?” she sounded worried. “You couldn’t stop downstairs to tell us?”
“Eitan wanted to lock up and I guess I was distracted in the elevator. I’m sorry that I had to run like this.”
“What’s going on, Joey? Really.”
He breathed out through his nostrils. “What do you want me to say, Sharon?”
“The truth, perhaps?”
“Is Erica there?”
“She’s in the other room.”
Joe sighed as he watched the flashing of the traffic lights. They were synchronized all the way up Broadway, so that when the lights changed from green to yellow, the effect of all of them switching in succession simultaneously appeared like a runway lighting up, preparing for an oncoming airplane to takeoff. He had nothing to say to Sharon because she had done nothing wrong, but the lingering bitterness in his mouth told him that Sharon wouldn’t understand even if he tried to explain himself.
“I don’t appreciate surprises,” he said simply.
“Ugh,” she scoffed into the phone. “You’re always doing this—never growing up. This is why you’re alone.”
Exactly the opposite! He didn’t respond for a moment. “That was below the belt.”
“Wait,” she began automatically, “I didn’t mean that—”
“Yes, you did. Don’t lie.”
“No, Joey, I’m sorry.”
“No, maybe you’re right.”
“Come on, I’m sorry—”
“I’ve gotta go. We’ll talk.” He hung up, knowing that Sharon wouldn’t bother him about Erica ever again. With a heave, he lifted himself off the bench and ran towards the station.
Have you ever run away from an uncomfortable situation? Do you think Joe did the right thing? Will we ever meet Steven Broder? Find out more at www.nathanwolff.com, and while you’re there, order your copy of Outdated TODAY! Available in hardcover and Kindle editions.