Saturday evening just after Shabbos, he put on his robe and walked to the dormitory hallway leading to the shower, clutching his bar of Ivory. It had become all but a ritual for he and Leah to trek together to Manhattan every Saturday night. It was strange to Yankel, this routine. After all, no words of commitment to each other had officially been spoken, so were they even a true couple? But like everything else in Jewish religious life, Yankel had long ago observed, most doubts were quelled with yet another ritual, only this time it was produced by two, not done by one.
He walked to and fro in his thick royal blue bathrobe (a gift he had received from an aunt who was fond of him). At just before 7 p.m., still early in the evening, he was in no particular rush as he bowed his head into the shower spray. The water rained forceful and hot in the relatively clean stalls, but Yankel couldn’t help but notice the soaps of American capitalism, a variety of them, that bochrim left on the shower floor and in the soap dish: Irish Spring, Ivory, Dove, Dial – the American civilization of endless abundance displayed in toiletries. He wondered if Leah too was showering precisely at that moment. He squeezed a smidgen of liquid Prell into his hand and he soaped up his scalp vigorously as if to shake away this impious thought. He lingered for a minute under the shower head: the little pleasures one was permitted, he thought, as the agreeably warm water flowed down his face.
He grabbed his towel and eyeglasses which were already steamed beyond intelligent use, put on his bathrobe and walked back to his room. He checked the clock (he was running on time) and started to dress. In the closet hung a fresh white shirt, but then he thought better. His shirt from Shabbos was on the bed; he solemnly surveyed it. Why, it was still quite wearable, hardly creased at all. Why not use it? An economy to which one is obligated. His arms pushed through the sleeves of his white shirt with speed and purpose. Now Yankel hoisted his belted suit pants (with the faint pinstripes) to his waist. Tonight special, he made a tie with a dimpled Windsor knot.
Hat on his head, Yankel walked a brisk step to Leah’s house. His thoughts kept him lively company, and the twenty-minute walk felt like five. Leah was waiting at the door. He noticed the glint of her earrings and then looked away.
“No car today?” Leah asked.
“I thought we could take the subway.”
Leah went back into the closet and grabbed an extra scarf for warmth. “I like the subway,” she said.
At the Newkirk station a funny thing happened. When the train pulled in, they saw an express parallel, waiting. Quickly, they dashed out the door across the platform to catch it. Just before the express opened its doors Leah realized, as she stood between two trains, that she had left one leather glove on the seat of the local D train. She tried to run back into the train to retrieve it, but the doors started to close. Thinking fast, she threw the other glove back in the train.
Yankel stared in disbelief. What was this?
“What good is it for me or anyone to have one glove?” Leah explained as the train took off. “Now someone else in that train car will find a pair of gloves and use them.”
Yankel shook his head in delighted surprise. “Clever, clever, clever is all I can say.” This woman was far cleverer than he. It was unsettling.
A cold gust of New York City winter rushed to greet them as they emerged from the subway. Their heads bowed slightly down and toward each other to defend against the wind. “Brrr,” he thought he heard Leah say. The traffic was loud and Leah had muffled herself with a scarf. He could see her breath in the air between them.
“Let’s watch the skaters,” she said, pulling the scarf down.
They walked over to the rink at Rockefeller Center. There were a few skaters in the middle doing figure-eights and jumps and all kinds of acrobatics, svelte men and women.
“You ever think, Yankel, of these people getting old – like in fifty years they won’t be doing this?”
“What puts that thought in your head?” Yankel asked.
“My father told me that before the war he was a good skater. Now he is an old man. It makes me think: What happens to youth?”
“Youth is wasted on the young. Isn’t that what George Bernard Shaw said?” Yankel offered.
“We are young now,” Leah said. “I want to spend it well.”
There was a break in the skating to clean the rink, and they moved on, wrapping themselves up against the cold. They stopped at bookstores and browsed. Leah picked up the large coffee table books on art or decorating and then moved to the back of the store to find old maps of New York and photograph collections.
“Yankel, look at this one!”
It was one of those black and whites where the adults and children have coal eyes that peer at you from across the sea of time, suffering eyes, deep and blank all at once.
“And another one.”
It was a Jacob Riis: Lower East Side children smudged with dirt, like street urchins, playing on a stoop while a vendor with a filthy derby and a coal miner’s face looks on. There was a sign with the faintest Yiddish lettering in the background.
They stayed out late, walking and walking and talking.
“You like to be in touch with the past, Leah – with those pictures.”
“You could say so,” Leah said. “I don’t know why.”
Yankel took something out of his pocket and threw it into the trash can from afar and scored. “There’s someone I know like that in yeshiva. He got a hold of an old map of the town of Mir in Lithuania – pre-war – and he memorized every street – including where the gas station was.”
“Mir? Where the famous yeshiva was! A gas station? I had no idea!”
“Apparently, there was a gas station – a tiny one in the 1930s – or so he says.”
They walked in the cold all the way down to 34th Street. By the time they got on the subway, even the late Saturday night crowd had thinned. Yankel and Leah moved closer together, generating a warmth between them even though they didn’t touch. The city had begun to prepare for sleep. There were still plenty of people, but they were spread throughout the car – the shiny, empty, orange and yellow D train seats. At such moments even a New York City subway car could provide a bit of intimacy. They had a corner all to themselves.
The train made its way across the Manhattan Bridge. To the north and south were, to Leah’s eyes, magical views of a Manhattan on the lip of water. The subway neared the Brooklyn side. It picked up speed and began to move with a bit of a shake and a roll.
Yankel turned to Leah: “A shuckle,” he said, using the Yiddish phrase for the mild movement one makes in prayer.
Leah made a face. “I suppose that’s funny.”
“I think so,” Yankel said.
Leah got up from her seat to look through the windows on the car doors. Yankel followed her and they could see dimly their reflections against the glass even as they saw the outside.
“Yankel, I want to ask you something. It’s going to come as a bit of a shock, but I want to ask you, anyway.”
Oh no. Would this be some kind of test? Yankel wondered.
He braced himself. “Go ahead.” They were still looking straight at the glass, but Leah studied Yankel’s reflection.
“What do you think of love, Yankel?”
“Love?” Yankel asked, as if some random creature had just dropped from the sky into the subway.
Outside the sound of raindrops – a freezing rain – could be heard on the metal roof of the car. It had begun to rain and sleet. They looked at each other now.
“Yeah, like love in the everyday romantic sense, like you hear in those songs, the Gentiles.” She ducked her head. “You know.”
Yankel made a wave of the hand and snorted. “Oh; that kind of love…”
The subway train entered the DeKalb Avenue tunnel now. The clickety-clack of the train came to a roar. They left the window and returned to their seats.
Leah mouthed some words, but above the din of the speeding train Yankel could not make them out.
When the noise got quieter Leah repeated herself. “That kind of love, you say?” she mimicked Yankel. “You ever think about that kind of love?”
“No, actually, I don’t.” Yankel silently regarded his hands resting on his lap. “Bei unz, by us suitability is the main thing. Love flows from what is suitable.”
The train screeched on the rails. “It sounds so dull,” Leah said.
“Suitability is actually a deep thing,” Yankel said. “I don’t make light of it. It means suitable in the eyes of G-d as well as in our own eyes. Nisht kein kleinekeit. No small thing, no small thing I tell you. It takes courage to love what is suitable, to love what is right.”
Leah smoothed out the front of her coat. “It’s not about love that I am really asking. There’s a deadly dullness to cliches like it’s tzu’gepast, or it’s bashert, ordained. I like the messiness of life – that’s what I envy about the goyim – their freedom to make a mess – to have it rain and snow and everything in between,” she said, gesturing to the outside.
The train pulled into the station and the doors opened. People now boarded the car and an older couple sat near them. The woman gave Yankel a nervous smile.
Self-conscious in front of the couple, he motioned to Leah to change seats to a more “private” corner of the car but even after they sat down, Yankel did not answer. Not that there was a question, really. Leah wasn’t asking anything, She was just talking and yet Yankel could sense with increasing clarity that this was a test he dare not fail. The idea of suitability could make sense to her, but could it be that she was deciding that it shouldn’t by dint of will or defiance? For a while, he looked only straight ahead. Slowly, tentatively, his gaze returned to her. He would double down.
“I think we are tzu’gepast – right for each other. I have no doubt. That’s no kleinekeit, I tell you.” His chin went down deep for emphasis. “But you are talking about messes? I have never heard of this, but I think you are saying that you don’t want to be spoken for.”
The train started to move and the couplings between cars compressed and made a loud popping sound.
Leah’s eyes expanded; the green in them seemed greener now. “I want surprises in life! Yes, I don’t want to be spoken for or my life to be spoken for. I want a life that keeps me and everyone else guessing.” Then she looked at Yankel intently. “But I do like you, Yankel.”
“Es s’keygentzeitik, it’s mutual,” Yankel quickly said.
At the last stop, Atlantic, a man in a bow tie and a chesterfield coat had gotten on and sat across from them. When he heard Yankel use a Yiddish word, he stood up and walked away.
Yankel and Leah looked at each other as if to say, “What’s the matter with him?”
Leah seemed deep in thought. He noticed her forehead for the first time – it was white and soft and smooth. “I wonder what’s happening in there.” He pointed tenderly to the top of her head.
“Maybe,” Leah said, “you should be pointing here,” and she gestured to her heart. I wish sometimes I could read my own heart well.”
“Leah,” Yankel said in a slightly pedantic tone, “what is in the heart is always a tricky matter. You know that, Leah. On the one hand we are supposed to love G-d with all our hearts, but on the other hand, ‘What is in the heart is not what matters.’ It is to do the will of G-d,” he said, quoting the Talmud.
Leah rolled her eyes, slid away from Yankel an inch or two on the subway bench while moving her head back in mild mockery.
“You’re a sincere person, Yankel. But you’re playing a game. You know as well as I do that life is more than just ‘doing His will.’ What is in my heart and your heart” – she pointed at Yankel’s chest – “is also His will.” She let her statement settle in the air and now she passionately snapped shut her pocketbook.
Yankel moved closer to her. “I believe our hearts play some role, but not much. Everything is pre-destined, anyway.”
Leah let out a laugh. “For Heaven’s sake. Listen to yourself. Either you mean it, which is bad enough, or you’re just spouting a line, which is even worse. It’s downright frightening the way you speak! Bist du gemacht fun holtz. Are you made of wood?”
The blue lights that lined the tunnels blurred past quickly. Again, he turned to her. “Do you give everyone such a hard time?”
Leah laughed a little, but she was still emotional. “You don’t understand, Yankel. This is a hard time? We’re just talking!”
“I don’t want you to be angry with me. I would do anything to please you. Anything! But,” and here he waved his hand up and down, “if you don’t mind my saying so, you’re talking shtus – you’re whipping up a drama over nothing. S’iz gornisht mit gornisht.”
“It’s not ‘nothing.’ The more you make it into nothing, the worse it is.” She shook her head and sighed. She was not unhappy, not exactly unhappy anyway, but clearly she was dissatisfied, a mild despair.
There was a long and dry pause between them. Yankel had attempted to placate her, though deep down he resented that he had to, then he had tried to oppose her. This too did not ‘work.’ By his lights, Leah was being excessive and unfair to him. After all, he had only said what was correct and proper – everything happens because it is meant to be. Everyone knows that. Why does a man have to get persecuted? This is the kind of torture between man and woman he had witnessed all through growing up. His father used to say, “Die Eberhster hot geshikt tzu mir a fro vos in ganzen tut nisht fashteien mir,” G-d sent me a woman who doesn’t understand me. Yet Yankel hadn’t see it that way back then. In fact, he had always taken his mother’s side, had seen her as the victim – married to a self-centered man. But now he wondered. A certain amount of bad between people was unavoidable. It wasn’t pleasant what he was feeling with Leah now. He had a stinging sensation at the bottom of his heart.
It was late and the steady movement of the train itself seemed to lull them into a stupor. It rocked back and forth rhythmically like a cradle. After about ten minutes of this, Leah’s body began to relax and she started to drift into sleep. Yankel turned to her amid the din of the train, “Die Bahn is dokh a vig’l,” Yankel said. The train is a cradle.
Leah lifted her head and life came to her eyes. “I can’t believe you knew that Yiddish word!” She smiled. “That is why I must be with you. It’s your Yiddish – my father’s language.”
“Yid’l mit’n vig’l,” Yankel said – a pun on the Yiddish film, Yidl mit’n fidl.
Leah relaxed more and so did Yankel.
It’s all in the words, he thought. A change of phrase here and there, and suddenly a new day.
“It will be all right then?” Yankel asked.
“Yes, it will be all right,” she said with just a tinge of weariness. The train was moving fast now and they sat together for another few minutes in silence. Yankel felt a great relief though he sensed there was more to come. Soon, they were back at Avenue J.
(To be continued)