It was with a mixture of dread, self-coercion and, dare he say, anticipation, that he again dialed the number, only this time Leah answered the phone.
He tried to picture her but for the life of him couldn’t remember how she looked. A flash of pale skin, dark hair, brown eyes – or were her eyes green? How could a man sit in front of a woman for two hours and not remember her face? He had a moment of panic and papered it over with a formal tone. “A frelichen un a lichtege’n Chanukah,” he said. A happy Chanukah.
“Oh my goodness, you sound like my father with your Yiddish! Where did you learn to speak Yiddish?” she said in a bright voice.
“I’m just being myself really. That is the way I speak, with a little Yiddish here and there.” If she only knew the rest of what was inside of him, thought Yankel, that she “is impressed by my Yiddish.” How tormented he was by his thoughts!
“But your words sound so nice!”
“It’s no big deal, really. I don’t know much. If we get to know each other, you will find out. Speaking of which,” he cleared some moisture from his throat, “would you be available this Motzoei Shabbes?” Saturday night was a big-time dating night. He hoped he had given her enough notice.
“I am available,” Leah said brightly.
“Good,” he said, feeling an inborn, cellular resistance to her enthusiasm. “I will see you at eight o’clock?”
This time Yankel was able to borrow a different car. It was an almost-new Oldsmobile ’98 Regency.
“Beautiful car,” Leah said when he picked her up that Saturday evening.
Yankel was of course deeply embarrassed by it on account of its fanciness. His friend had practically forced it on him. “Make an impression,” his friend said. “It’s the kind of impression I don’t want to make,” he’d said back. Yankel was concerned about setting the right tone. What was the point for a poor scholar like him to pranz arum – prance around in a fancy car. Some did, but it wasn’t for him. “Oh, for Heaven’s sake,” his friend had said. “Just this once,” he dangled the keys, “live a little.”
“It looks like it’s brand new,” Leah said.
“It’s a late model,” Yankel begrudgingly conceded. In fact, Yankel was well aware that it was showroom new – 400 miles on the odometer. A brand-new car. Anyone could see that. It even smelled like a new car. Would it kill anyone if he came right out and said it?
Sensing his discomfort, Leah said, “Well, you must have good friends who let you use their cars.”
“There are people who want me to succeed,” he offered somewhat mysteriously.
“Oh,” she said, “I’m a little jealous. It’s great to have people who want your success.”
Leah looked at him. She flashed a modest smile revealing small, white, polished-pearl teeth. To see them sent a fright through him.
“They don’t really want me to succeed,” he said. “They want the pleasure of seeing me succeed. That’s not the same thing.” Yankel stared a little too intently at the road in front of him as though afraid of going astray.
“That’s a deep idea,” Leah said. “They want the pleasure of seeing you succeed,” she repeated, “but somehow I don’t think that’s all there is.”
Strangely, he didn’t feel the need to argue with her, as he did with every woman. Her words went down his windpipe and lodged themselves there. And then surprisingly, they seemed to dissolve warmly and settle in his stomach. This was entirely unexpected. He was, truth be told, a wreck with women, alternatively combative, or weak and uncertain and pedantic. He was ashamed of his ineptitude, but somehow this evening – a clear, cold moon and starry night whipped gently by wintry winds – gave him the faintest hope that he, things, might be different going forward.
“You know, Leah,” he said, glancing out the car window. They were in the “ditch” now, the part of the Brooklyn Queens Expressway that dips down before rising to a glimpse of the polished lights of Manhattan one sees from the Brooklyn Promenade. “Your question last week about my father’s relationship with the Ebershter really threw me, but it also got me thinking.”
“I was just being silly maybe or provocative. I really didn’t mean to be, sometimes I can’t help it. I apologize.” Her head made a curtsy.
“No, nisht da farvos, really you have nothing for which to be sorry. I think you were being serious. You don’t have to play the know-nothing innocent with me,” he said, lifting a hand off the steering wheel as if to wave away the thought. “You have a right to be serious, too.”
Leah nodded, as though she felt understood by that. Perhaps this is exactly how she wanted to be seen: a serious person with just the tiniest hint of trouble-making. It was still cold in the car and she buttoned up the top button of her coat. She looked out the window.
“When do you think it will be the first snow this year?” Leah asked.
Yankel frowned. Such a banal question, he thought. “Why is this important?” He asked this with a touch of impatience.
“Oh, it’s just a game I used to play with my sister. Whoever had the closest guess would win the right to sit in the front seat of my father’s car on all family trips for the year.”
“Did you ever win?”
“Never. I always ended up in the backseat.”
“To win is not a very Jewish thing,” Yankel declared. “A Jew doesn’t win. A Jew does the right thing. That is winning,” he said, but even as these words slipped out, he was already hating himself for having said them. He sounded pompous. He had valuable things to say sometimes, but he was aware that the world did not always see them as important and he could easily be seen as the buffoon. But at the same time he felt he had no control over this.
He dug in further. “Did you ever notice the happy faces of lottery winners splattered all over the New York Post and other schmatte newspapers? A few months later you find out that their marriages fell apart; this one is not talking to the other. Such is the way of the Gentiles and the non-G-d-fearing Jews.”
“All the same, but I like winning,” Leah said simply.
“Well,” he sheepishly confessed “if it makes you feel better about your sister, I have never won anything,” and she let out a light laugh that made him forgive himself for his earnestness.
By now they were on the Manhattan side of the Brooklyn Bridge. They seemed to glide over every bump and pothole in the new Oldsmobile. It felt like a chariot. He saw it had not passed Leah’s notice that there were wire-spoke hubcaps and silver mud-flaps. (She had given them a lengthy sidelong glance before they got in the car.)
Yankel adjusted the brim of his hat. “Leah,” he said, “perhaps it would please you if we could go to the Empire State Building to the observatory?” Again, he listened to the way he sounded, and cringed. Why was he so formal?
Leah answered him in kind. “I would love that. I have never been there.”
It was a popular night spot and the elevator was crowded as it rocketed toward ever-higher floors. He tried to not study her but did so anyway, from the side. He struggled. A man must be able to look at a woman, he thought finally. She was not displeasing. Her coat was a soft blue, fashionable, but not too fashionable. Her face had a brightness to it. Good complexion, he thought. This was all he would allow himself to discern. Even still, he was aware that something inside him blinked, like a lightning flash.
(To be continued)