It would be difficult to describe Yankel’s state that night. He went to sleep fitfully. On the one hand he was glad, elated to have Leah on his side. But his bad angels took control that night: Your father cannot be vanquished, they told him. Leah was naïve to think she could outwit the old man! He never had been subdued. It was true that his father hung on to him like a dybbuk. What a strange and twisted thing relationships were! If that weren’t bad enough, the bad angel hammered on: And even if your father could be made to surrender, who’s to say that Leah was not the new dybbuk? One goes, the other one comes. Such was the way of the world. Yankel sat up in bed, recoiled in disgust, and then reproached himself.
And then another thing: It had seeped into him by now that Leah was in fact beautiful. Everyone said so. But what made for beauty in a woman – the shape of her face, the body, her eyebrows, her eyes? What did he know? He had seen pictures of “beautiful” women in advertisements all the time. Yet he did not find them attractive in the least. And when he was with Leah, there were moments where something came over him and he wanted to run away. It could be anything, like another pretty woman temporarily blinding him, or maybe looking at Leah from a different angle – and a panic would set in: Maybe he didn’t like her enough? It could be he did need a psychologist.
Leah, on the other hand, might say when they were together, “Look at the handsome man,” or “Look at that beautiful woman.” She didn’t stare, but she seemed to enjoy the universe just as it was. But for Yankel this was serious business. The whole thing, the way people looked, if he thought about it, felt like an attack of some kind – an attack of the senses.
In fact, just that morning he’d gone in to buy his usual seeded roll. Something about the Gentile woman again caught his eye. Her hair was a kind of reddish blond, and wisps of it fell down the side of her face. She was pretty with her milky-white skin. He had never noticed anything about her in detail before nor, for the most part, in any woman. It was as if the veil on the world of women had been lifted, and this disturbed him greatly. He noticed the woman next door and even the woman down the street. Even his friends’ wives – Heaven forbid! The other day his eye caught hold of the shape of the lips of his friend’s wife. What would it be like to kiss those lips or Leah’s lips? What would it feel like for him, for them? Oy! One who looks at even the little finger of a woman, it is as if he has seen her nakedness, says the Talmud. A man who does this may even forfeit his share in the World to Come.
These were Yankel’s thoughts as he got himself up to go to the payphone to dial his father. It’s amazing that none of this fear – of the purgatory punishment that awaits one who looks at women too much – seemed to trouble his father at all. It is as if this whole part of the religion which governed him didn’t even exist for his father. For his father, it was all one big pleasure trip – within certain boundaries and limitations, but a pleasure trip nonetheless.
“Good morning, Abba,” he said into the receiver. “I must see you before you go. You know I was sorry about the way that I acted with Gila, and I do want to see you and her before you go back to Israel,” he forced himself to say. This was a lie, but he felt he needed a pretext to ask for another meeting.
“You are my son. I want to see you, but my schedule is such that… I am quite overwhelmed now. Of course, I will see you, but wait one moment. There is, of course, Gila as well. I don’t know her schedule, but why don’t you meet us both in Brooklyn tonight? We will both be at the restaurant near the yeshiva at 9 o’clock. I will tell her you are coming.”
Now Yankel would have to demand the money in the presence of this woman – his father’s wife-to-be whom he had never met. There was no way that he could concentrate on his studies today. Instead, he kept thinking about the hour of the evening he would meet his father.
Finally, at 8:30 he started to walk toward Weiss’ restaurant. What if he were not his father’s son? he fantasized. He had never felt that he was. What if it turned out that he was adopted and maybe not even Jewish? What would he do? Would he rejoice? Would he chase down some Gentile girl?
Soon he found himself in the protective steam of this kosher eatery – an eatery of the Jewish people – with smells of noodles and cheese, and blintzes and sour cream, and potato pancakes with the clink-clink of spoons plunking down applesauce on hard, white, industrial china.
At a corner table sat his father and Gila. He had a small planning book open and she was turned away slightly with her small red pocketbook on the table. Nothing could have prepared him for the assault on his senses that he experienced. It was like a nuclear flash. Gila was a woman who looked like, well, he couldn’t exactly say what she looked like – it was just an assault – an amphibious assault as though she were an aquatic creature. She was tall and statuesque (she rose to greet him); she looked like a stewardess on El Al, but there was something maritime about her too – large eyes – a cross between a Cyclops and a mermaid.
“Shalom,” she said, standing before him. “How wonderful to meet you.”
A kettle boiled inside Yankel. Blood throbbed at his temples and at the top of his head, a heat so powerful that his fedora might just blow off like from the force of a spurting geyser. He must have blushed. He could not remember what happened next because it was like a shell had landed near him and had momentarily knocked his hearing senseless and his mouth mute.
He glanced at Gila again for a moment. How could he not look at her, though it was taxing to do so? She looked nothing like any woman he might meet on the street. Whatever she was wearing seemed more like a wrap or a fruit peel than clothing. He couldn’t even remember what color it was, but her whole being seemed to be a flash of Mediterranean blue.
His father put a hand on his jacket sleeve. “Come sit down, my boy, you look flushed.”
Yankel tried valiantly to get his bearings, but his head was swimming. Amid the clamor of the restaurant, he cast about, mentally trying to catch his breath. Finally, he took a big gulp of water. He still couldn’t hear anything. The blood still throbbed heavily. He had never before been so overcome.
“Pardon me,” Yankel said. “I have come down with a terrible cold – a sinus infection. I am totally not myself and a little dizzy. Just give me a minute.”
(To be continued)