That Story with the Good Ending, by Nathan Wolff
Fridays are short days at the office, and on a particular one at ten minutes after two I log off my computer, gather my things, and leave to go home. Having run out of the house that morning without preparing an adequate lunch, I turn south out of the building onto Seventh Avenue towards the pizza place on Broadway for relatively inexpensive sustenance en route to the LIRR. I am halfway down the block when my eye catches another Jew approaching the crosswalk at Thirty-Ninth Street. Though I have no doubt that there are other Jews on the street at this time ¾ this being New York and all ¾ she is obviously dressed so: orange cardigan, gray pleated ankle skirt, matching gray stockings, and silver ballet slippers. She has a tiny black bag nestled under her right armpit and carries a Gap shopping bag in her left hand. More then that I don’t gather; I turn my gaze away from her and preoccupy myself instead with wondering if I have enough time to get to Macy’s and then to a train without cutting it too close to Shabbat.
Surely enough, as I approach my lunch spot, I notice the Jewish-looking girl slowing down in front of the restaurant. Seeing as how there really is nowhere else kosher around here for us to eat out at this late hour, I’m not surprised by her destination. A disheveled old man is requesting tzedakah from the patrons whom he opens the door for, and this girl slows down right in front of the opening and starts searching through her purse. Either because I’m moved by her giving attitude or am embarrassed not to reciprocate, I also fish around my coat pocket for a spare dollar. Right when I reach out my hand to give him my donation and step inside, the girl finally finds her contribution and also hands him a dollar. Our combined generosity moves him, so much that he lets go of the door and claps excitedly. “I thank you both,” he announces with a bow, adding to the awkwardness of the moment. I nod my head and smile while opening the door, which the mystery girl uses as her cue to enter without recognizing my kindness, which doesn’t really bother me.
The place is basically empty save for a few tables in the front that are occupied by other Friday workers not wanting to come to the Friday night meal starving, and a table of random tourists. The chairs in the back are turned over onto the tables, indicating to us late-lunchers that we better eat fast and get out! I spot my desired Sicilian slice from behind the glass, but before I can order it, she points at it and the guy behind the counter slides it into the oven. I wait with a sullen face until she moves to the cashier before asking if there is perhaps a square pie to arrive some time in the near future. “We’re closing,” he says matter-of-factly, and I stand there with no retort. I settle for a regular slice. He cuts one from the pie and drops it onto a paper plate.
“Can I get it heated?” I ask him.
“It’s already hot,” he states decisively as he hands it to me on a tray.
But you’re heating up her slice! I don’t whine, but instead nod and morosely take it over to the cashier. She is walking back to get her tray with a Peach Snapple in hand, the exact flavor I had intended to purchase. As she takes my Sicilian slice and my Snapple to her seat, I move over to the cashier and slam a ten-dollar bill onto the counter. “You got anything smaller?” he asks. “She took my last five.” I respond in the negative, and walk away with a wad of ones and my warm, regular slice, a Lemonade Snapple and perfunctory straw, and find only a small table in the corner available. Since facing the wall would certainly appear strange, after I return from washing I sit facing the rest of the diners and her table, occasionally glancing at the back of her head.
With nothing else to do but fight my wandering mind from thinking about this girl, I eat quickly. There was nothing particularly intriguing about this encounter with her as of yet; two people can have the same tastes and the same amount of money and it won’t mean anything. Still, nobody likes being scrutinized behind her back. Nevertheless, I sit there determined to eat as quickly as possible, guessing from her outfit where she lives, wondering where she’s going for Shabbat with no duffel bag or rolling suitcase in tote, and what she is doing in the city this late on a Friday. Her age is indistinguishable by just looking at her; I surmise that she is old enough to come into the city like this regularly but might be too young for it to be routine. I finish my slice, bentch and dash for the door while she is taking out a pocket siddur from her purse.
I end up at the Gap; as I walked down Broadway a tinge of worry made me reconsider the hassle of navigating Macy’s at such a late hour. With no time to try anything on, I quickly find four colors I can live with and hurry to the counter. I almost do a double take when I find my new shadow only two people ahead of me on line with the contents of the Gap bag she’d had been carrying and a receipt already in her hand. In her other hand is her unfinished Snapple, which she is drinking through a straw. Until that point I might have thought all these occurrences as a bunch of coincidences, but the fact that I am somewhat of a stickler about drinking Snapple with a straw makes all these similarities hard to just write off as just coincidences. I actually let out a small laugh, barely a “ha ha,” to which she turns and reacts similarly. I want to shrug, gesture, or say something, but it doesn’t feel right; she seems like someone who doesn’t want to make anything of our encounter, so I leave her to her oblivion. I’m not so close-minded; perhaps the whole reason I had ended up at Gap was because she’d persuaded me with the walking advertisement in her right hand. Apparently I’m correct about her caring less than I do, as she’s already turned her attention back to the cashiers. I suddenly become very interested in my upcoming purchase. Do I really need these shirts? I ask myself. What does she think of me that I’m buying these? Why do I care?
“Excuse me,” I suddenly hear coming from an impatient clerk, who effectively wakes me from my musings. “You can step forward.”
I bring my shirts to the counter and look to my right, where Little Ms. Jewish Girl is sorting out her return with a different cashier. When I detect the slightest turn of her head in my direction, I quickly turn away, hoping that this will be quick.
“Do you want to apply for a Gap Card today and save 15% on your purchase?” the clerk asks as she scans the barcodes of the soon-to-be-mine T-shirts.
“What, three dollars?” I ask incredulously.
“The 15% is for all purchases you make today from any Gap affiliated stores, even Gap.com.”
“Uh, no,” I simply reply, opting out of explaining what being Shomer Shabbat really entails. She shows no expression as she throws my shirts into a nylon bag, and after we exchange money for a receipt I thank her and bid her good day. As I turn I catch the girl being handed her final receipt and I pick up my pace to get out of there before any more coincidences can occur. I bolt down 34th Street, maneuvering through the pedestrian traffic at top speed, trying to remember which minute of the hour the last Far Rockaway off-peak is scheduled to depart.
Kippas are still sporting the heads of other commuters gathered at the spot — under the big sign by the ticket counters where the track numbers were listed — but I have only five minutes before my train is to leave. I jump into the last car on the track and start walking through the aisles to find an open seat. Three cars in and the only seat worth taking is by a window at the end of the car with the two seats directly facing it. I collapse into it, relishing the leg room, but ten seconds later a Russian-looking woman sits directly across from me and places all her shopping bags right in front of my calves. Then an older Hispanic gentleman in a business suit drops next to me and emits a long sigh, whispering what sounds like a Spanish prayer. I grimace and wonder why he has to sit next to me, even lifting my head to look around the car to see if the car was full—it is—and when I turn back I hear a gasping plop into the seat next to the Russian woman. Sure enough, it’s her, breathless from running for the train, which jerks forward and starts to leave the station.
The car is silent save for the beating of my heart, which I’m certain everyone can hear. All right, you’ve got my attention, Hashem, I think while suppressing a smile. This many coincidences are just too much to ignore: the dollar, the Sicilian pizza, the Snapple, the straw, the Gap, the same train, the same car, the same seat! Does this mean anything? It can’t mean nothing! But what are we supposed to do about it? Start talking? Maybe she didn’t notice any of what just happened and I’ll go and make the next fifteen minutes that we’re stuck in these seats extremely awkward. But then maybe we were really supposed to meet on this train and have fifteen uninterrupted minutes of conversation—or longer if she doesn’t switch at Jamaica—and all that’s happened up until now was supposed to give me enough reason to break the ice when we would have otherwise remained silent. Before I can assess more options, I begin to sense the silence of the train car becoming more acute when I realize that she’s looking in my direction. Without a doubt, I just know that she’s thinking exactly what I’m thinking: who’s is going to initiate?
Knowing that I’ll never forgive myself for defecting, I clench my teeth, breathe shortly, and open my mouth slowly without a clue as to what I’m going to say. Before I emit any sound, she blurts out, “same train even?”
“Yeah, I know,” I reply, my tension melting. “I was wondering when you’d show up.”
She laughs, which draws the attention of our seatmates. “Did I take your favorite slice?”
I nod, joining in her laughter. I notice that the people in the seats across are glancing in our direction also. “And my Snapple flavor.”
“There was more than one bottle of Peach!” she cries. By now we’re giggling so much that we’re drawing a lot of attention.
I wipe away a tear and try to calm down. Quietly, I say, “I just couldn’t after you took the Sicilian.”
“Understandable,” she admits. “I’m surprised we haven’t met before.”
“We probably have,” I shrug. “Where do you live?”
“Me too!” I exclaim. “West Broadway?”
“Yes!” she cries, clapping in excitement. “I’m at the corner of Franklin.”
“Oh,” I frown. “I’m way down by Edward Avenue.”
“OK,” she concedes. “We’re within a ten-minute walk.”
“Fifteen minutes,” I correct her, and then wonder why. “Anyway, what’s your name? It isn’t Adina, is it?”
Her mouth drops. My eyes widen. “No way,” is all I can say.
She exclaims a jubilant cry, startling the Russian-looking woman next to her. “We even have the same name!” she tries explaining, but the woman just looks nervously at the both of us.
“It’s a whole story,” I reassure her through my smile.
Nathan Wolff is a writer/editor living in Ramat Beit Shemesh with his wife and children. In his debut novel, Outdated, he created a realistic fictional story in which he explains the Torah outlook on marriage and relationships.To promote awareness of the Torah’s and to curtail the spiritual attack on the Jewish home, Nathan presents his book and its message to whomever will listen. Check out more at nathanwolff.com.