A few hours before Sharon’s jog, at 12:28 PM, Joe was leaning on a wooden railing that separated him from what looked like a replica of a pirate ship. His neck was craned up as he tried to see up to the deck of the immense boat docked at Pier 17, but he could see nothing besides the side of the hull bobbing up and down from the movement of the water below. He had walked here from his office building with a hope that there would be a breeze from the river but there wasn’t, just less shade from the strong sun that he would have to endure with the noise from tourist groups lining up for boat tours of lower Manhattan. Looking at his phone for the Time — 12:29 — he sighed and started tapping his feet on the dock. He scratched at his chin, turned to his left and his right to ensure no one was within earshot, and at the exact moment the minute changed he called Rabbi Tzvi.
“Good afternoon, Yosef,” the Rabbi answered pleasantly. “Punctual, I see.”
“You told me to call now,” Joe reminded him. “I only have an hour for lunch.”
Joe laughed to himself; all morning he had tried working out exactly how he would answer that question. After two more dates and another scheduled for later that day, he still didn’t know exactly what he was looking for on these dates. Sure, Rachel was pretty, and he was finding himself smiling more naturally, and there were long spans of conversation that didn’t feel forced, but what about Erica? Not her, exactly, but the lingering question from Shabbos whether he could still like another girl despite being in a shidduch. Was that an indication that Rachel wasn’t…it? How would he ask that to Rabbi Tzvi?
“What’s up?” Joe repeated. “Well, I have Date #5 scheduled for tonight—”
“What?” interrupted the Rabbi. “Last Thursday you’d only gone out twice.”
“So what’s with the rush?”
Joe took a quick breath. “Well, Mrs. Rosenzweig told me on Sunday that Rachel was finished with work for the summer and had some free time, so we picked up the pace.”
“Why wasn’t I informed?”
Joe started tapping his foot rapidly. “You once asked why our dates were so spaced apart, so I thought that it wouldn’t be a big deal to bunch them.”
“That’s with the first dates,” he clarified. “The later dates have a whole different purpose, and you can’t just rush through them. You’re poised to go on a fifth date and we haven’t even discussed the last two.”
A sudden breeze whisked by and carried with it a distinct smell of raw fish. “I’m sorry,” Joe said automatically, turning away from the odor.
“You don’t have to be sorry all the time. Don’t think you’re doing me a service by not calling. I might be out-of-town, but I’m not off the planet.”
Joe smiled. “OK.”
“So, how were the last dates?”
“Pretty good,” he said, clicking his tongue. “She has a lot to say.”
“You like that?”
“She asks these deep questions, like, ‘who would I want to meet, dead or alive,’ or ‘what was the pivotal moment of my life, up to now?’”
“That’s nice. Are you finding out anything about her?”
Joe was pacing the pier, looking at the ground as he talked, once or twice narrowly avoiding passers-by. “Sure. We’re talking the whole time. I just find her questions interesting.”
“Great. How are you feeling towards her?”
Joe stopped in mid-stride. He quickly glanced around to see if anyone was watching him, but all the tourists were too absorbed in their tour guide’s oration. “Well, that’s what I wanted to know,” he struggled to find the right word, “like, how attracted I’m supposed to be.”
“How attracted?” he repeated.
“Yeah. How…not necessarily after four dates, but, overall, where are we aiming to get?”
“Didn’t we talk about this already?” Rabbi Tzvi asked.
“Maybe,” Joe said quickly, “but, do the dates end when there’s this overwhelming attraction, or is the decision based on other things?”
There was a pause, which drove Joe mad. He never knew whether Rabbi Tzvi was actually thinking about an answer or just distracted with any of a thousand things going on around him.
After an audible inhale, the Rabbi said: “The short answer is yes and no. It isn’t a prerequisite to getting engaged, but it helps. I don’t like the term ‘attraction’ but for lack of a substitute…look, shidduchim isn’t the Jewish version of the Hollywood romance — the climax of the relationship being the engagement and after that a sharp drop in the excitement. If a person looks at everything together after a number of dates and finds himself really drawn to her, then it’s a good sign, but it isn’t the determining factor.”
The tour group had moved on and Joe’s gaze was fixed on the overdressed senior ladies struggling to step onto the boat’s gangplank. He ran his hand through his short hair and replaced his kippah to its spot just behind his bangs. “But even if she’s pretty, attraction is usually accompanied by feelings. We’re talking about it as if it’s another trait, like speaking the same language.”
“I think that you still have this romantic idea in your head. Shidduchim is totally different from what you’re used to, if not the opposite of what you thought about mating and dating. What they believe to be the ‘beginning of a beautiful friendship’ we stay far away from. We don’t subject our teenagers to the domination of their hormones, and we don’t even let boys and girls become close friends, all in order to spare them the potential emotional damage of misplaced attraction. So it wouldn’t make sense for romantic attraction to be the sign to proceed.”
What did he say about friends? Joe heard the words but didn’t understand the context. He didn’t have much time, so with no other choice, he spoke bluntly. “What if I don’t find her as attractive as other women I know?”
He never thought that Rabbi Tzvi would laugh. “That took guts to admit.”
Joe almost laughed also. “Yeah,” he answered curtly.
“I can hear the dilemma, but you really can’t compare a woman you’ve met through shidduchim with one you met without any checks to your attraction. Why do you like this other woman? Is it an emotional connection? A physical one? Are you taking into consideration all her character flaws and still finding her more attractive? You don’t have to answer, but you see how it isn’t equal.”
Sweat was beading on Joe’s forehead as he leaned on the railing by the big ship. Wiping it away with the back of his hand, he sighed. “I hear, rabbi. I thought this was different. I went away for Shabbos and this girl popped in and I was just…wowed, you know? I know that it was just that, but I was scared it undermined the shidduch. That’s what I’m trying to determine.”
The tour boat blew a loud horn, startling Joe. “If you’re being honest,” said Rabbi Tzvi, “and you’re sure that it was ‘just that,’ then you’re better off continuing with your shidduch. It sounds like you’re having a good time. Get back to me after your next date with an answer to this question: what else do you need to know?”
“I’ll try,” he agreed.
He breathed deeply, inhaling a cloud of steam. Shortly after they hung up Joe ran back to his office to catch minchah. He couldn’t review the whole conversation as he was too busy running through the crowded lunch-hour pedestrian traffic, and then there was minchah, and after that his boss met with him about his next project…
At exactly 5 PM he left the office and took the subway uptown. By 5:20 he was in Rockefeller Center, which he had chosen as their meeting spot because of something Rachel had said on a previous date. Many people swarmed around the plaza, heading home from work or out to dinner, and Joe felt a certain camaraderie knowing that he could share in their eager anticipation. After sorting out his quandary with Rabbi Tzvi, he was looking forward to an unencumbered date with Rachel. Mrs. Rosenzweig suggested that they “raise things” and go out to dinner, but Joe felt odd dictating which restaurant, so he prepared a list of possibilities. On the spot where a gargantuan evergreen spent the winter months he waited, eventually moving towards the railing overlooking the skating rink, providing outdoor seating to the restaurant on the mezzanine level during the summer. After a few minutes, he heard a feminine voice from his right.
“Saying hi to the statue?” He spun around to find Rachel, her soft smile captivating him for a suspended moment. She wore what Joe could best describe as a summery outfit: a pastel-pink button-down collared shirt, a light khaki linen skirt and brown Mary Janes.
“You startled me,” he told her. “I thought your voice came in with the breeze.”
“I’m sorry,” she said sincerely. “I didn’t want to take you out of your conversation with the idol.”
He bent his neck as if to stretch it. “I got tired of looking up at my memory of the tree, so I tried to count the seats at the restaurant occupying your skating rink.”
“My rink? Did you say ‘my rink’?” She stepped towards him and gave him an accusatory glare. “Did we meet here because I mentioned it the other day?”
“No,” Joe tried to deny. “It’s a central location.” He cracked when she started squinting at him in a humorous mock-suspicion. Raising his shoulders, he said, “You got me.”
“You’ve been listening to what I say,” she said, amused. “I’ll have to watch my words. Where are we going?”
Joe explained his dilemma. “I didn’t want to pick a restaurant without you.”
“Oh,” she said surprised. “I specifically stayed pareve.”
“Even still,” Joe continued slowly, “I brought a list of places in the vicinity. Can I tell you the options?”
As he reached for the list in his jacket pocket, he saw her wrinkle her nose, albeit unconsciously, and Joe felt his jaw clench. He immediately ascertained that she had probably enjoyed the mystery of not knowing where they would be going. In an act of bravery, he looked at his list and then quickly folded it back up.
“You know, let’s go to a café,” he said. “Simple food, plenty of coffee options…if you like coffee.”
“You remember my rink, but you don’t remember whether I like coffee?” she asked playfully. She seemed relieved. Joe felt his shoulders loosen.
The kosher café was a few blocks away and so in the summer evening they strolled while he answered her question about what he was learning in yeshiva. He sensed she was interested and got a bit carried away, explaining to her the whole Gemara, thumb motions and all. It was only at Fifth Avenue when they were waiting for the light to change that he realized she had patiently allowed him to ramble for nearly five minutes.
“I’m sorry,” he said with a shrug. “You asked.”
“No, it was great. I got to see a glimpse of something that excites you.”
Joe looked over to gage her sarcasm and found none. He took a breath and noted that he actually felt the air enter his lungs and spread throughout his body. “OK, now you go off on a tangent,” he offered. “Anything you want.”
“No,” she frowned. “I don’t believe in revenge.”
They crossed the street and walked down 48th Street, looking up at the marquises to find the café but to no avail. They nearly passed it before Joe doubled back upon seeing the name on the door. “It’s here,” he called to Rachel, who was already in front of the next storefront.
“This place is also kosher,” she observed about the adjacent restaurant. “Wolf and Lamb.”
“I saw that on the list, but I figured that they only serve heavy game meat, like venison or bison.”
She walked towards him and stood exactly in front of the wall dividing the two restaurants. “I think you can only get kosher bison in Chicago. This looks like a regular steakhouse. Maybe the name is taken from the verse about when Moshiach will come.”
Joe stood next to her and the two of them looked back and forth at the two eateries. Then they caught each other’s gaze, and Rachel made a face of indecision. “I can’t choose,” she said.
“I already decided,” he declared, pointing to the café.
“Splendid,” she said, stepping to the right and opening the door. “It’s just funny that two kosher restaurants are side by side like this, especially one meat and one dairy.”
“We had that downtown,” Joe said as he stepped towards her. “There were two restaurants on First Avenue, and—”
Two things caused him to stop in mid-sentence. One was that he recalled how he and Sharon had frequented those restaurants so much that they started referring to them as “the spot,” a memory he didn’t want to elaborate on with Rachel. The second was that he felt his phone vibrating against his leg. He made an embarrassed grab for it, pulling it out of his pocket to turn it off, but when he did he must’ve answered it, because he heard a voice emitting from the speaker.
Rachel stopped and turned back to him. “Is everything all right?” she asked him.
He was so flustered by the thought she might think he answered the call that he tried to cover himself. “Hello?” he asked suspiciously into the phone.
“Do you want to take this and I’ll get us a table?” Rachel asked him.
He told her to wait by raising a finger, clenching his teeth when he heard Sharon’s voice demand, “Joey? What’s going on?”
His blood started pumping faster. “Who is this?” he played dumb.
Rachel was within earshot when Sharon then said, loudly and audibly, “Joey, it’s me.” For a moment he wore a face of worry, but before Rachel detected it, he pulled the phone away from his ear and hung up quickly. With a shrug, he said shakily, “Wrong number. I forgot to turn it off. Shall we go in?”
Did Rachel realize Joe’s charade? Does she like coffee? What happened to the gargantuan evergreen? Find out answers to different questions at www.nathanwolff.com and while you’re there, order your copy of Outdated TODAY! Also available at the YU Seforim Sale (starting next week) and on Amazon!