By Sunday afternoon, Joe was bouncing off the walls from cabin fever. Though he had been entertained by a lively meal at Rabbi Josh’s house on Friday night, he was effectively barred indoors all Shabbos by heavy rains that persisted throughout the holy day and through Saturday night. After sitting through Shabbos davening with his socks and the lower half of his suit pants soaking wet and the air conditioning on full blast, he took his afternoon lightly when he felt the beginnings of a cold tingling behind his eyes. The rains diminished to a light drizzle on Sunday morning, but Joe was sneezing and so he lounged around, reading an essay on statistical methods and saving his strength for his date.
As he was ironing the suit pants that had lost their crease in the rain, he called his parents.
“Hello,” his older sister answered the phone.
“Hello Joe,” she said enthusiastically, then to someone else, probably his mother, “It’s Joe.”
“What are you doing there?”
“We came for Shabbat and stayed the night. Michael didn’t want to drive home in the rain. Did it rain by you yesterday?”
“All day.” He coughed. “I think I caught something.”
“I’m sorry to hear that. What’s going on with you, anyway? Found yourself a wife yet?”
He stammered. “What? No…why would you think that?”
“Come on, you’re a twenty-two-year-old religious guy in New York. You didn’t think that we’d expect you to be dating already?”
“So, what’s her name?”
He couldn’t help laughing at the irony of his sister’s inquiry. “There’s no girl,” he said in mock-sorrow.
“Then what’s so funny?”
“I don’t believe you. You haven’t even started dating?”
He finished with his suit pants and wanted to hang them. “Can you hold on? I want to get a hanger from the bedroom.”
“Dodging the question, eh? I can’t talk long; we’re about to sit for brunch and I have to change Aviva.”
He coughed deeply. “Ah, brunch. Family tradition.”
“You don’t sound so good. Go get some rest.”
“I’ve been in all day,” he explained.
“Oh. Well, we’re missing you down here, Joe. Ask your rabbi to find you a date, at least.”
“Whatever you say, Ellen. Who’s there?”
“Just Mom. Dad and Michael are out getting the bagels. Should I get her?”
He put the phone down next to the iron and ran to the bedroom before his mother came to the phone. As he reached for a hanger, he pulled out his cleanest white shirt and grimaced at its wrinkles. When he returned to the table where he had spread a towel over to
iron on, he heard his mother’s voice.
“Hi mom,” he answered breathlessly. “I ran to get my shirt to iron.”
“Iron a shirt? What’s the occasion?”
He clenched his teeth over his potential slip. “I’m meeting someone in the city.”
“You sound all stuffed up,” she commented with motherly concern.
Joe sneezed into the towel. “I am.”
“So who’re you meeting? Who is she?”
He almost choked on his breath. “Why do you think it’s a she?”
“Who else would you iron for?”
Laying the shirt on the towel, he checked the iron and found it out of water. “Sharon?”
“Oh Joe. You don’t have to lie to me.”
“What? I wouldn’t iron a shirt to meet Sharon?”
“You wouldn’t say that you were going to ‘meet someone.’”
He laughed to himself. “Can you hold on a moment while I fill the iron with water?”
She was used to broken conversations while he was in his apartment, so he just put down the phone and went to the kitchen sink. As he filled a plastic cup with water, he started breathing deeply. Should I tell her? Rabbi Tzvi said not to say I’m dating, but she’s my mother. He was so absorbed in his thought that the water overflowed from the cup onto his hand and onto his shirtsleeve. He took the water and refilled the iron before picking up the phone. “OK, mom,” he announced dramatically. “You caught me. I have a date tonight.”
She didn’t respond right away. “What did you say?” she asked after a moment. Joe’s heart was beating as if he’d just completed a marathon. “I’m sorry, your father just came in the front door. Did you say something?”
He felt sweat beading on his forehead. “No. Maybe you heard the rain from the roof over here. Go eat while the bagels are hot.”
“OK. How are things otherwise?”
They hung up a minute later and Joe dropped into a chair. For a few minutes he sat there, staring at the steam rising from the iron, relieved at his quick reconsideration. He finished his ironing, ate a hearty lunch, and at 3 PM was poised to leave his apartment, giving himself two hours to both get there and to hopefully calm his nerves.
As he left his basement, he opened his umbrella to avoid the runoff from the roof as he locked the door. He had a small packet of tissues that he put into his coat pocket as he pulled out his keys. Just then, he was startled by Mrs. Gruberman’s voice coming from the driveway above him.
“Good afternoon, Joe. Are you going out in this weather?” she asked.
His hand shook as he heard her, causing him to drop his keys to the ground. He bent down to search for them among the wet leaves. “At least it isn’t yesterday’s rain,” he responded.
“That’s true. Do you need to go somewhere?”
Hoping she couldn’t see him in his suit from behind his umbrella, he took extra time locking his door once he found the keys. “No. I have a pretty good umbrella.”
“It’s no problem. Why get all wet?”
He had no real reason to fight her, so he stood up and walked up the stairs, blowing his cover. “Can you bring me to the subway?”
Her eyes twinkled at the sight of his suit and tie. “Sure. Sit in the back; Aliza’s coming too.”
Great. He went quickly around to the passenger side and settled into the back seat as Aliza came from the front of the house. When she and Mrs. Gruberman were in the car, Aliza turned to her mother and said, “I brought the gift certificate to the Fitting Room. Do you mind if I use it for some new—?”
“So, Joe,” her mother inserted quickly, speaking over Aliza. “Where are we taking you?”
Aliza turned quickly and found Joe in the back seat, her eyes darting directly at his tie. All he could grant her was a forced smile.
“Whichever subway station is on your way.”
They dropped off Joe at Avenue J, where he got on a Q train and spent the whole ride into Manhattan going nuts. He tried to convince himself of the lack of significance this event would have in the grand scheme of his life, but it wasn’t working very well. We’re only getting together to chat; I’m not obligated to marry her just because we meet once. His chest was pounding, and he felt the urge to pace the length of the car, but he and the other passengers were following the strict etiquette of the New York Metropolitan Transit Authority to avoid all eye contact and sit as motionless as possible, so he instead suppressed his inner frenzy, occasionally blowing his nose. He became acutely aware of the noise of the car as it sped through the underground tunnels, a subtle nuance of his frequent train travels that he was usually able to ignore.
By the time he reached Times Square he was breathing normally, but still conscious of all the traffic noises set behind a background of a low rumbling vibration in his ears. It was still raining but not enough to clear the sidewalks of its normally thick mass of pedestrians. As Mrs. Rosenzweig had warned him, Joe had some difficulty finding the entrance, even though he had studied the picture on Google Maps. It was situated somewhat off Broadway, beyond a taxi driveway and very well hidden. Walking through the maze of umbrella-toting tourists in Times Square set him back, arriving at the Marriot only ten minutes early, the rumbling still echoing in his head at full intensity. Looking through the doors he found no lobby, only a small sign on a velvet-enveloped stand pointing to a vestibule and informing him that the lobby was on the eighth floor. He rode up alone, catching a quick glimpse of banquet and dining halls through the glass windows of the elevator. At the eighth floor the elevator stopped at what looked like a large ballroom with a high ceiling. It was lit with plenty of lights, suspended from the sky it seemed, yet remained dim. Joe stepped into the lobby with his neck craning upwards to try and figure out where the ceiling for the humongous room was. The entire hotel seemed to surround the open air of the lobby as he could see all the hallways with the suite doors extending all the way up to an indeterminable ceiling. He was walking around the perimeter gazing at the lights, which he observed were shining from the room hallways of the floors above, when he felt as if he was being scrutinized. He looked down to see a religious-looking girl sitting on a couch. She appeared to be rather young, perhaps twenty, but she was dressed nicely and though Joe was pretty sure that she was too young to be Rachel, she was cute enough that he wouldn’t mind if it was her. As he came nearer she stood up and looked right at him.
“Reuven?” she asked him. He was so startled that he jumped back a bit.
“No,” he told her apologetically. She returned to her seat with a huff. Joe went to find a place to sit far from her, eventually settling at an armchair with a two-seat couch opposite it. He sank into the seat and blew his nose. Then he thought he should stand by the elevators to meet her but looking around and finding very few other people he figured Rachel would spot him. Besides the other Jewish girl there was an older man reading a newspaper and at the far end of the lobby was the hotel check-in, however inconvenient it appeared to be. There was a small shop where Joe thought to buy the expected drink, but all of a sudden, he put his plan on hold.
From behind Joe heard a light cough that he ascertained was someone calling for his attention. He spun around to find a female hovering a few feet away from where he was sitting. In one second, he surmised that it was probably his date. She had a thin face, touched-up but not made-up heavily, and he could tell that she had thick curly hair put up in some way; more than that he didn’t have the time to register because his mind was already processing the fact that she was speaking to him. “Are you Joseph?” she asked.
“Yes,” he answered. “I guess you’re Rachel.”
She nodded, motioning towards his chest. “There’s the orange tie.”
He looked down at the tie. “It did its job.”
“Yeah,” she said, still standing in the aisle. It then occurred to Joe that she was waiting for him to invite her to sit.
“Oh, please sit down,” he motioned towards the couch. She accepted, settling into the two-seater and removing her coat. Joe watched her as she placed her coat over the arm of the couch and her umbrella next to her. She looked at Joe and smiled politely. There was a silence of about three seconds until Joe realized that the burden of conversation was on him. He began with whatever came to his mind.
“You’re coming from Manhattan?” he asked. “I mean, you live here in Manhattan?”
“Yes,” she said. “I live in Washington Heights.”
He leaned back in the chair and scratched his chin. “Did it take a long time to get here?”
“Not really. I travel downtown every day; I don’t even feel it.”
“It was raining up there, too?”
She didn’t answer right away. “Yes, pretty hard,” she said slowly.
Then he remembered her umbrella. “Right,” he laughed nervously. “So, where do you work…if I may ask?”
“I work in a Jewish day school doing administrative tasks.” She grimaced. “It’s work.”
Joe felt the urge to sneeze, but he held back. “It’s not what you want to be doing?” He thought he sounded like a journalist.
She shrugged. “Let’s say that it isn’t what I expected to be doing.”
He reached into his coat pocket to grab a tissue but didn’t pull it out before he sneezed into his forearm. “Sometimes we have to start out and get our feet wet before diving in.”
“Bless you,” she said, offering him a concerned frown. “Do you have a cold?”
He brushed off her question with a shake of his head. “I did yesterday.”
Rachel hummed, granting him an elongated glance before looking around vaguely. Joe noticed behind her that another well-dressed young Jew, probably the tardy Reuven, had finally arrived.
“Do you like living in Manhattan?” Joe asked, folding his arms across his chest.
She thought about it. “I guess so. I’ve been living here for a while.”
“Yes. You also went to college here, no?”
“I went to NYU,” Joe explained. “Downtown is a whole other world.”
“I hear that,” she said. There was another pause, in which Joe felt he should elaborate.
“I mean, downtown isn’t so Jewish. We had one minyan at school and there was a Young Israel in the area, but there wasn’t so much to eat out or anything.”
“I know. I went to Stern. There wasn’t much in Murray Hill either.”
He coughed lightly. “It’s different for you. You didn’t have to go find a shul three times a day, davka in the early morning and at the most inconvenient times in the afternoon.”
“I guess so,” she said. Her eyes followed a trio of women walking past.
“Plus, you always had all those restaurants on Broadway.”
She folded her legs. “I don’t know. We certainly thought that there wasn’t much.”
The elevator chimed, and a family of obvious tourists entered the lobby. They were conversing loudly, drawing Rachel’s attention.
“Do you understand what they’re saying?” Joe asked her.
“No,” she answered, giving him a puzzled look. “Why?”
“Does it sound like they’re talking French?”
She shrugged. “I don’t know.”
“Maybe Manhattan is like that,” he commented, leaning forward.
“What do you mean?”
“Like, I had a thought once that nowhere in Manhattan can you feel very Jewish because there’s so much else going on to overshadow it.”
She thought for a moment. “Perhaps.”
There were a few awkward moments while she glanced behind him absently and Joe chewed on his tongue. Somehow, he could talk for hours with Sharon or with girls from school, and yet nothing was coming to him. He gathered from her silence that she wasn’t so interested in discussing Manhattan. “So, I hear you come from St. Louis.”
“Born and raised,” she answered.
“How did your family end up there?” Now he thought he really sounded like a journalist.
“We’ve been in St. Louis for a few generations,” she stated proudly.
His eyes caught Reuven get up and walk towards the gift shop. Right, I’m supposed to buy her a drink. The French tourists stared at Reuven as he passed them. “That’s great. I don’t know anything about St. Louis. Is it a small community?”
“Everything is small compared to New York,” she said with slight disdain. “But there are a number of shuls, if that indicates a Jewish community’s size.”
“It might be,” Joe said. “I come from the suburbs of DC, and in our town there’s a big Orthodox shul and a not-so-big one, and that’s about it.”
Rachel made another humming sound and began to look around again. She was sitting up very straight, her lips slightly pursed and her eyes squinting. Joe wasn’t sure whether she was genuinely uninterested or whether his conversation wasn’t engaging enough. She appeared to have something to say, only that Joe hadn’t gotten her to open up yet. Was she supposed to on a first date? Mr. Gruberman told him to be a mentch and to just talk, so he would try more. It wasn’t over just yet.
“What do you enjoy doing?” he asked her as he pulled out a tissue to blow his nose.
She gave him a puzzled look. “What would I like to do, like for a job?”
“No, like,” he rolled his hand, “What would you do on a day off…if you weren’t occupied with some other obligation?”
“That’s an interesting way of asking,” she said, amused. Joe inwardly congratulated himself. “Um, I enjoy running along the river, drawing, reading. I enjoy cooking; I cook for Shabbos a lot because my roommates work late on Fridays.”
“That’s nice of you,” Joe complimented. His face froze, scared he crossed some line by complimenting her, but she carried on.
“Well, I’ve been doing it for a long time. When I was boarding during high school I lived with a family and the mother would make everything from scratch. She didn’t work; her husband was a cardiologist.”
Joe was watching her face but caught her uncross her legs and then cross the other.
“But I really learned the most in Israel. Our seminary didn’t organize Shabbos for us, so if we didn’t want to invite ourselves to random families from the list, we had to make Shabbos ourselves,” she paused and when she realized he was looking at her, she added, “which I didn’t mind.”
As she talked, Joe watched her face relax. She widened her eyes, fluttered her lashes, made broad hand motions as she talked, which he enjoyed seeing. When he saw Reuven returning with two bottles of soda, the urge to do the same returned but he didn’t want to interrupt her. “You got a real Israel experience.”
“Oh, I loved it there. I learned so much.”
“Did you have a hard time coming back? I know I did.”
She moved towards the arm of the loveseat, resting her arm on it. “Yeah.” She made a face. “You can imagine coming from Yerushalayim and being dropped in St. Louis.”
He shrugged. “Actually, I can’t.”
“Did you learn in Israel?” she asked.
He leaned back in the chair. “I was in yeshiva for a summer zman, but I was there for a total of seven months.”
“What else did you do?”
He coughed into a tissue. “I went to this funny high school that graduates its seniors in January and then goes to Israel for the rest of the year and tours and volunteers.”
She lifted her eyebrows. “That sounds fun.”
“It was,” he said shortly.
“How did you get to yeshiva then?”
“Oh, that’s a long story,” Joe said. He looked at Rachel and read in her expression that she was waiting for him to tell it. The realization that she might actually be interested in what he had to say shook him a bit, but he composed himself.
Then he remembered that there was something he was supposed to do. “I’m sorry. I haven’t been a gentleman. Would you like something to drink before I begin?”
What drink does Joe get Rachel? How much did it cost him? Does Rachel finish her drink by the time they leave the hotel? Buy Outdated NOW and ponder all these questions and more! Get it at www.nathanwolff.com or on Amazon!