From where Joe was sitting at the Aaronsons’ Shabbos table, he could see the last vestiges of orange in the dark sky settling for the night as he slowly picked at his piece of ice cream cake, oblivious to the conversation around him. He had spent most of the meal in similar absorption, brooding over how he had left things with Sharon and hadn’t had the chance to call her back. But he was a guest, and had shown as much appreciation as he could muster, hoping that Rabbi Tzvi hadn’t noticed his demeanor.
“I still can’t believe that Mrs. Kelleher didn’t know our name,” Mrs. Aaronson was saying. “She was at our wedding.”
“That doesn’t mean anything,” Rabbi Tzvi objected. “People go to weddings to fulfill some social obligation or to fress at the shmorg. They have no clue that the whole purpose is to bring joy to the bride and groom.”
“I think that one can share in the simcha just being there,” his wife countered.
“Maybe, but it doesn’t fulfill the mitzvah,” the rabbi concluded, looking in Joe’s direction. “You ever learned the Gemara in Kesubos?”
“I don’t think so,” Joe said.
“Smack in the middle of a great sugya is this whole Gemara about the mitzvah of bringing joy to the chosson and kallah. Maybe we’ll look at it tomorrow.”
“Great,” Joe asserted. “This ice cream cake is also great. It doesn’t taste pareve at all.”
“Thank you,” Mrs. Aaronson replied. “It’s Sholomie and Hadassah’s treat for being so helpful and keeping themselves occupied today.”
“The miracle of Rich’s Whip,” Rabbi Tzvi inserted. “Is it yummy, Hadassah?”
The well-behaved little girl, almost four years old, smiled widely. “I squeez’d in the choc-late.”
“Very good. Afterwards it’s off to bed for you two.”
“But it’s only nine,” objected seven-year-old Shlomie.
“That’s still pretty late. Your brother didn’t even make it past eight.”
“That’s because he played football in the sun,” Shlomie said. To Joe, he boasted, “I swept the floors.”
Joe nodded, wide-eyed. “Very clean.”
“I’ll let you read one book before bed,” his father interjected.
“Me too!” Hadassah cried. “Mommy said I was help-ful!”
“You’re also much younger,” her mother told her. “I’ll tell you a story in bed. Tzvi, can we bentch?”
“Sure, we have no mezuman. You should’ve brought a friend, Yosef, then we’d have a mezuman.”
“Next time,” Joe said.
“I don’t know if that’ll help our mezuman,” the rabbi commented, “but we’ll be happy nonetheless.” Then there was a knock at the screen door. “Come in.”
The screen door opened and immediately Hadassah jumped from her chair.
“Rikki!” she exclaimed as she ran towards the teenage girl standing in the doorway, who Joe couldn’t help staring at. She was the spitting image of Sharon, or what Sharon must’ve looked like at fifteen. She even smiled like Sharon, her joy at seeing the little girl so expressive that Joe assumed she must’ve been her cousin, or at least of some relation to the Aaronson family. Joe amused himself as he tried to picture what Sharon would look like wearing a similar burgundy Shabbos robe. When he felt Rabbi Tzvi watching him, he became very interested in trying to finish the remaining drops of melted ice cream in his dessert dish.
“Good Shabbos Hadassi,” Rikki said in a high voice. “Your mommy and daddy let you stay up this late?”
Hadassah nodded. “And I have ice cream cake,” she added.
“Wow, how nice!”
“How did your cake come out in the end?” the mother asked.
“I don’t know yet,” Rikki answered. “We’re just reaching dessert and we found tons of ants in the sugar.” Joe turned his head when she mentioned the ants because she shuddered in disgust, amusing the little girl. “We don’t have any other sweetener and my zeidi needs his tea to be sweet.”
“You can make the tea sweet when you brew it,” Mrs. Aaronson was saying as she handed Rikki an unmarked jar. “It also solves many Shabbos issues.”
“No amount we would put in would be enough for my zeidi. He likes to put it in himself. Thank you very much.”
“With pleasure. Enjoy.”
“Don’t go,” Hadassah whined as Rikki let the little girl down. “Stay and read me.”
“Rikki is still in the middle of her meal,” Mrs. Aaronson reminded her daughter.
“And it’s time for bed,” the rabbi added. “Goodnight Rikki.”
“I’ll come by in the morning,” Rikki assured the little girl. “We can go to shul together. OK?”
Hadassah was appeased. She spun on her toes and returned to her ice cream. “Bye Rikki.”
“Bye. Thanks again,” Rikki said before she turned and left. Joe was watching her disappear from under the porch light outside when the rabbi tapped him on his shoulder, passing him a bentcher.
“We’re holding up bedtime,” he told Joe.
After bentching, Joe went outside to the front porch to give the family some alone time. It was a small square of a wooden frame, separating the screen door from the lawn, one step up from the path around the colony and surrounded by high bushes perfect for children’s hideouts. The porch was covered and served as the family’s dining space when the kitchen was too warm and when they wanted to feel the coolness of the rain without getting wet. A few folding chairs were lined up on the low walls, and Joe opened what turned out to be a lounge chair and lay down in it. He was reminded of his backyard in Potomac, where he would sometimes go late at night when he finished his homework and lie on his deck listening to the silence. He closed his eyes and savored the harmonious overlapping of the various insects chirping in the woods until the screen door opened and he jerked upright to see Rabbi Tzvi emerge and block the light from inside with his figure. Joe began to sit up but the Rabbi motioned to him that he didn’t need to.
“Enjoy,” he said. “I brought you up here to let you relax. Is it working?”
“Pretty much,” Joe answered automatically. “It’s really something else here.”
“Worth the three-hour bus trip?” he asked as he unfolded a chair that was leaning behind the door.
“Four hours, but yeah.”
The Rabbi settled into the chair and emitted an exhausted grunt. “We never had our own place…my family. My father always joked that we had too many of us to fit into a bungalow.” He laughed to himself and was silent for a moment. “We would visit cousins, or family friends, and I came up with yeshiva when I was a bochur. I always liked it up here.”
“I guess I’m spoiled,” Joe said bashfully. “I lived in the suburbs all my life.”
Rabbi Tzvi coughed. “It’s not the same. It’s the break from the routine, from the nonstop action of the city. Here I have time to think, like the great rabbis who used to walk in the forests. I have a great view of the sunset from this porch.”
“Yeah, I saw glimpses of it during the meal.”
“When do I have the time to see it in Brooklyn?” he complained. “It’s really an amazing thing…the sunset. The same sky that shows nothing but constant blue all day suddenly gets painted with oranges and yellows and reds, all those colors of high intensity—or high frequency, I forget which—only at the horizon and only right before sunset. The rest of the sky doesn’t get all feminine with its colors, though; it remains very blue, even a darker blue than the rest of the day. The sun continues to set deeper beyond the horizon and the reds and oranges fade and the blue becomes so dark that it becomes black as night with no remnant of the day that just was.”
Joe almost laughed. “I didn’t know rabbis were so into aesthetics.”
“What?” Rabbi Tzvi exclaimed. “The greatest of artists are rabbis. They know how to view the world for the purpose that it’s meant to be viewed: as a vehicle to arrive at knowledge of Hashem.
As for me, once in a while I get tossed a bone. I think the sky is a parable to the ebb and flow of life. We wish for our lives to be as pleasant as the daytime: clear, constant, and obvious. However, sometimes things need to undergo change, even to a time when everything is dark and bleak, and the transition can be intense and scary. And all throughout the blue is only getting thicker—that very consistency we trusted is what eventually becomes the darkness.”
“That doesn’t sound too promising,” Joe noted.
“You are right, but what happens when the night ends? Again the thick blue resurfaces from the bitter darkness, slowly becoming lighter and lighter as the sun approaches the eastern horizon. As it does, what also accompanies this slow fade to light? The same pinks and yellows of the sunset, but this time it heralds a clear day with comfortable blue for hours and hours. So inasmuch as the difficulties that come with any change indicate a gloomy period of night ahead, they just as much signal their eventual end.” He paused, probably to allow Joe to swallow the message. “Sounds good?”
“It does,” he said immediately. “You thought of it on your own?”
“I get one thought a year,” he said sheepishly.
Joe was silent for a moment before he asked innocently, “But what about the green?”
The rabbi asked surprised, “The what?”
“The green. Every light spectrum must pass through all the colors, and you haven’t taken into account the green between the yellow and the blue.”
Rabbi Tzvi shifted in his seat. “Really?”
“That’s what I learned in Earth Science.”
They heard the sound of a door inside closing, causing the Rabbi to turn and motion something to the lone figure behind the screen door. “Well, I didn’t have to pass any Regents in Earth Science and I certainly have never seen any green in the sky. You can sit out here all night and try and find it if you want, but davening begins at nine.”
“OK,” Joe said.
“So before you get lost in the stars, do you want to talk about what was going on the other night on the phone?”
Joe started breathing heavily, blinking rapidly. “Something…came up…”
The screen door opened and Joe didn’t say anything else. He looked up to see Mrs. Aaronson passing two bottles of Coors Light to her husband.
“Do you want a beer?” the Rabbi offered. Joe hesitated, never having understood the appeal of beer and never liking the taste.
The Rabbi twisted off the top of one and made a strained sound as he passed the open bottle to Joe. “Don’t make me drink them both.”
Joe took the bottle, which turned out to be freezing cold, and thanked the Rabbi.
“Thank you, Miri,” Rabbi Tzvi said to his wife, who smiled and went back into the bungalow, the screen door banging against the doorframe as it closed.
“I’m going to bed,” she told him quietly. He nodded and opened his beer.
Joe made a berachah and took a sip, surprised at enjoying it. “It’s pretty good.”
“You gave me an excuse to get some. My wife doesn’t let me drink in front of the kids. She didn’t grow up with it.”
Joe lifted his eyebrows. “And you did?”
The Rabbi made a berachah and took a deep gulp. “No, but in my line of work…”
They both laughed. Joe took another sip.
“So what’s going on?” the Rabbi asked.
Joe leaned back into the chair and stretched out his legs. “Things are great. We’re having a really good time.”
“We? You can read her feelings?”
Joe clicked his tongue. “No, I mean that I am.”
“You’re discussing your plans for the future?”
Joe raised an eyebrow. “Like, our plans?”
“Where you want to live, what you want to do, things like that?”
“Shouldn’t we first decide if we want to get married?”
“You should be speaking out your individual feelings on the future, so that she won’t surprise you by wanting to live in Brazil or work on the moon or something that doesn’t work for you.”
“Oh.” Joe took a long sip. “Yeah, we’ve talked about that. She seems fine with living in New York, at least away from St. Louis.”
The Rabbi coughed. “What’s wrong with St. Louis?”
“Nothing. She just said she doesn’t need to live near her family. She’s flexible.”
“How did it come up? You asked her?”
“Not exactly. She’s been away from home for so many years and I asked her if she ever wanted to move back. She said no.”
“Great. It sounds like your shidduch’s moving forward.”
Joe felt a sudden pressure on his chest. “That’s what it sounds like,” Joe eventually conceded.
But the Rabbi replied, almost coldly, “That’s not a good response.”
Joe sat up and looked at Rabbi Tzvi in alarm. “Why not?”
“Look, if I were to tell you, for example, that you want to buy a stereo, and you go and look into the different options and you come to a conclusion that you’re going with one particular model, and you find the store that sells it at a good price with all the guarantees and warrantees, if I asked you if you’re going to buy it, you wouldn’t say ‘that’s what it looks like.’ You get what I mean?”
Joe felt the weight on his chest tighten, as if he’d been pushed. “Yeah, I get it. It’s just…‘engaged’ sounds so oppressive.”
“Perhaps,” Rabbi Tzvi conceded. Then he leaned forward. “But I don’t feel that that’s what’s really bothering you. Am I right?”
A baby cried nearby and Joe turned his head in its direction. He scratched his chin, still smooth from his shave that morning, and closed his eyes. “It isn’t her,” he admitted. “I enjoy the time we spend together, I look forward to our dates, we agree on many things—”
“What do you disagree about?” the Rabbi asked suddenly.
“Disagree about?” Joe repeated.
“Yes. Do you have any disagreements or do you two see eye-to-eye on everything?”
“No, we’ve had, nothing major. There was something she said once about the Internet that I didn’t like hearing.”
The Rabbi was in mid-sip when he asked, “How did she take your response?”
Joe looked up. “I didn’t respond. I changed the subject.”
Rabbi Tzvi coughed again. “But you have to deal with things like that. She has her own opinions, so don’t think she’ll just accept everything you say once you get married…if ever.”
Joe rolled his eyes. “I know that—”
“More than knowing that, Yosef. Be prepared to accept her and be happy with her as she is now. Whatever you disagree on will have to be dealt with, either through acceptance or compromise, but it mustn’t stop you from celebrating her.”
“What do you mean by ‘celebrating’?” Joe asked curiously.
“Her faults can’t ruin your image of her; they’re obstacles, sure, but you can still enjoy her without letting them get in your way. You might even find that they’ll work themselves out.”
Joe swept his arms out in exasperation, splashing his beer. “What, like I’m supposed to enjoy a wife who spends too much money or constantly burns our dinners?”
The Rabbi shushed him. “Try and be a little bit quieter, OK? Not everyone might be asleep yet.”
“Sorry,” Joe said, lowering his voice.
He laughed nervously. “It’s not a secret or anything, but you can enjoy her without enjoying her bad traits. If it’s detrimental to the relationship, that’s another story, but some bad traits stem from poor self-image, and your love could reverse that and bring out her best. You might have to think creatively sometimes…”
The Rabbi didn’t finish his sentence, and the two sat in silence until Joe felt that he better make some sign of acknowledgment. “I hear.”
“I’m telling you this because it’s bound to come up, even to the best of us.” He coughed. “Have you told your parents?”
Joe exhaled audibly. “I think they know by now.”
“That you’re this far?”
He felt his stomach acid churning. “No.”
“Are they…hostile to your lifestyle?”
“No, they’re accepting.”
“Then they’ll probably be fine with an engagement. So then what’s the problem?”
Joe was conscious of his breathing for a few moments before he stood up and leaned against the wooden banister, his back to the Rabbi. He was close enough to smell the woody scent of pine from the bushes below. He closed his eyes and the image of the young girl who came in during the meal flashed in his mind. “There’s a girl I know from college…”
The Rabbi nodded understandingly. “How close are you?”
Pause. “Not so close, but we have history.”
He turned around. “No, never. But—”
The Rabbi looked directly at him. “Are you sure?”
“Sure of what?”
“That she wasn’t a girlfriend?”
Joe made a face. “I would know a thing like that.”
“Are you sure?” he asked again, taking a drink from his beer. “It isn’t uncommon for a friend to hold in her true feelings with the hope of an eventual relationship.”
Joe shook his head again. “That doesn’t mean she was a girlfriend.”
The Rabbi stood up. “What’s in a name? What would you say about a friend who doesn’t show her true feelings, acts incredibly friendly and supportive to your new wife—all the while secretly resenting her and waiting for the day for cracks in your marriage to surface, and just when things get rocky will spring on you her years-long crush and put you in a major emotional dilemma?”
Joe watched the Rabbi’s soliloquy with folded arms. “That sounds a little exaggerated. Not all life is like a soap opera.”
“You’re correct,” said the Rabbi, stepping back and leaning on the other side of the porch. “But you have no guarantee that that isn’t the case. I once heard a rabbi put it this way: if you knew that behind one of 1,000 doors there was a ferocious dog ready to tear you to bits, you wouldn’t open any of them, no matter how much pleasure is behind all the other 999.”
“I don’t see the connection.”
“It basically shows that you wouldn’t knowingly enter into a situation that has even a thousand-to-one chance of being terribly painful against being incredibly pleasurable. In this case, it’s even smaller than twenty-to-one.”
Joe started pacing the small porch. “I wouldn’t say it was that small. And anyway, people know how they feel about their friends, especially those they know for a long time. They know whether they’re attracted to them, and they also know how the other feels.”
“You’d be surprised,” Rabbi Tzvi countered. “Maybe today they know, but who’s to say things don’t change? The longer two people know each other, they find different qualities that they didn’t see before, and feelings that weren’t apparent in the beginning start to surface.”
“Or the opposite,” Joe countered. “Look, I might have liked her once in four years, but certainly not now. I can’t read her thoughts, you’re right, but I know her. I know that there are no feelings there.”
He turned to find Rabbi Tzvi looking directly at him, unfazed. “Just ask yourself something,” he said quietly. “You know everything about her: what outfits she wears, on which days, where she bought them, what she likes to eat and what she doesn’t, the names of her parents and every one of her siblings, what makes her laugh, what makes her scared, secrets she’s never told anyone. You share memories of dinners, outings, evenings doing nothing. You think about her when she isn’t around, you care about how she will react to what you say, what you do, news you have to share with her…I’m just guessing, because you haven’t told me anything, but tell me if even one of that isn’t indicative of a deep emotional relationship. Forget about feelings; you can ‘feel’ nothing and yet still be connected to someone without even being aware how deep a connection you have. Tell me how any girl seeking to build such a relationship with you from scratch will feel when you’re already attached to someone else?”
Joe stopped pacing and took a swig of his beer. “Look, I know all this already. I don’t hang out with any of the girls I knew from college anymore. It’s just…one girl I got really close to, and she kept calling me. I couldn’t just tell her to stop…” He trailed off, snorting before taking another long sip.
“So…then what’s the problem to tell her now? You don’t have to be a jerk about it.”
“I know,” Joe rolled his eyes and sighed. “I…I went to an aufruf last week, I told you, and the groom was overwhelmed…well, I had to eat by her Friday night, and there was another girl from school…” Joe didn’t finish his thought. “I know that I have to do something. It’s just…not going to be easy.”
“Not at all,” the Rabbi sympathized. “But I believe that a real friend is also willing to say goodbye when the time comes.”
Joe was still leaning on the low wall of the porch with his arms crossed. He looked out at the small circle of orange light on the lawn in front of the porch. In the dark it reminded him of the lights on the highway as he brought Rebecca to the airport, when he didn’t stand in her way. “I guess so.” He sighed heavily.
He couldn’t stand any longer and collapsed onto the front stair, burying his chin between his knees. “You don’t know, Rabbi. She taught me so much about Orthodoxy, about the city, she made me Shabboses, she tried to set me up…”
“And so with that gratitude, you can also give her an untainted marriage. Don’t you also wish for her the best possible life, without all this falsity and drama? Look, I hope I’m wrong and that there’s nothing deep about your friendship and that she’ll be sincerely overjoyed for you without making you feel the slightest bit she’s being dumped. If not, though…you can’t push it off any longer.”
In the pause that ensued after the Rabbi’s last statement, Joe thought that even the crickets had been quieted. He couldn’t remember the last time he cried, but the hot tears in his eyes were at least a familiar feeling.
The Rabbi probably heard Joe’s stifled breathing, because he then came and sat next to him on the step. “I didn’t mean to be harsh,” he said in a softer tone.
He sniffled. “I need to hear it, I guess.”
Rabbi Tzvi placed his arm around Joe, but Joe didn’t move. “I’m sorry.”
Joe couldn’t tell from the Rabbi’s tone whether he was sorry for scolding or sorry that Joe had a hard time ahead of him. Either way, Joe felt comforted.
They sat silently for a few minutes until Rabbi Tzvi lowered his arm. “You have some time to think; it’s a long day tomorrow. I can’t tell you what to do, but whatever you decide, do it right.”
Joe said nothing, just sat breathing through his mouth. Rabbi Tzvi stood up.
“Do you want me to wake you for davening?”
“I’ll be up,” Joe murmured.
“I’ll knock if I don’t see you.”
“Thank you very much,” he said automatically, looking up slowly.
Rabbi Tzvi smiled. “As we said before, the house is yours. Take what you wish, just don’t leave anything out for the ants. Get some rest.”
Joe mustered a weak smile as the Rabbi walked past Joe and opened the squeaky screen door and went inside. For a long time Joe remained sitting on the front step with his head resting on his knees, watching the shadows of the moths swarm around the spot of orange light on the thin walkway. While he first called Mrs. Rosenzweig to spite Sharon, he never imagined that it would lead to this.
What will Joe do? Is Riki related to Sharon? Where in the Catskills is Woodside Cottages? Find out answers to different questions at www.nathanwolff.com and order your copy of Outdated NOW from Amazon!