Tag : love

October 23, 2020 by

“Like A Worm You Poke With A Stick”

In third grade, I wrote a short story about a girl who lost her mother in a fire. When a policeman finally reunites them, the girl says, “We meet at last.” A lifetime later, after many ups and downs between us, my mother and I also met at last. I was in my sixties, she in her eighties, when she said, “It’s love at second sight.” This chapter from my memoir, Losing the Atmosphere: A Baffling Disorder, A Search for Help, and the Therapist Who Understood, shows how our complicated relationship began.

Nona fed us lunch the same way every day. White kerchief tied over the coiled gray braid at the nape of her neck, small gold earrings bouncing gently, and lips sucked in over toothless gums, she carried a delicious-smelling pot from the stove to the table. She dipped in a spoon and loaded it with a flavorful mush of potatoes, meat, tomatoes, and string beans. Holding her
hand under it to catch any spills, she brought it toward my face. I opened my mouth and she slipped it in. While I chewed, she refilled the spoon and ferried it to my cousin Jerry’s mouth. Next was my cousin George’s. If food dripped down our chins, Nona scraped it upward with the spoon and guided it into our mouths.

All the while, she told us stories. “De farmer, he work hard to plant ta vegetables,” she would begin. “He put water and take out alla ta weeds.”

My turn for the spoon.

“He no see de horse what come in de night to eat ta vegetables.”

Jerry’s turn.

“An’ he tink to himself, Why alla ta vegetables dey disappear lak dat? What’s happen?”

George’s turn.

“An’ he say, I gawn fine out who take ta vegetables.”

The farmer hid in the field with his gun. There was a loud BAMMM! Nona always timed it perfectly. Just as the horse was running away, spinach dangling from his mouth, the pot would be empty.

After we got up to play, Nona walked to the sink, swaying from side to side on her bowed legs, and washed the pot and spoon. She stopped at the stove to lift the lids from the supper pots and give a quick stir. Then she took my baby brother, Marvin, out of his playpen. Carrying him in her arms, she went back down to the basement to sew.

I loved staying in my grandparents’ house, where we had been living for the past three months, since my father left for the war. During the day, my mother and aunts were at work, and Papoo peddled aprons and pillowcases to housewives in Brighton Beach. Nona, the lone adult at home, sewed aprons and took care of the children. Sometimes we played in the backyard, sometimes in the basement, where we crawled in and out of the empty cartons next to Nona’s sewing machine and Marvin’s playpen, or climbed up the mountain of fabric scraps and slid down.

Though not yet three, I sensed that the rules were looser here in Brooklyn. When my parents and I had lived in Knickerbocker Village on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, I hadn’t been allowed to put anything into my mouth if someone else’s mouth had touched it. Germs. There had been no stories at the table. Most of the mealtime talk had been Spanish practice—if I
wanted bread and butter, I had to say, “Quiero pan y mantequilla, por favor”—or my father reading aloud to my mother from the newspaper. And punishment at Nona’s wasn’t really punishment. Once, when Jerry and I did something we weren’t supposed to, Aunt Mollie said, “You naughty children!” but she was smiling.

I would find out years later that my mother also felt freer away from my father’s control. When she had brought me home from the hospital as a newborn, he’d forbidden her to use baby talk with me. No coo-cooing. She was permitted to speak English, but he spoke to me only in Spanish. To him, I was a grownup in miniature, one step away from the harsh realities of the job world, and it would be useful if I knew another language.

My father had also appointed himself the guardian of my health. Every evening, he demanded a report from my mother. It was chilly out; did you put a sweater on her? How much milk did she drink? When I caught my first cold at nine months, he berated her. She hadn’t dressed me properly, he said, hadn’t opened the window wide enough when she put me to sleep. My mother said she began to feel like hired help.

My parents met in March, 1941, at a foreign-language conversation club in Manhattan. Both were first-generation Americans whose parents—hers, Jews from Greece and Turkey; his, Jews from Russia—had come to America through Ellis Island early in the century. Bea, my mother, whose husband of three years had divorced her, was 26. A graduate of Brooklyn College, where she had majored in French, she came to the club because someone told her it was a good place to meet men. My father, Jack, 32 and also divorced—he’d gone to Reno to end a four-year marriage—was a regular who spoke several languages. He was self-taught, having dropped out of high school to support his younger brother and two sisters when both his parents died of cancer.

Sometimes I imagine their meeting. Jack saw a pretty, soft-spoken woman with long brown hair combed into a stylish upsweep. Bea saw a serious, handsome man with dark curly hair and a mustache over full lips. Chatting in French, they told each other where they worked: she, sewing in a garment factory, the only job she could get in the lingering Depression; he, at the post office, where he used his linguistic proficiency inspecting customs declarations.

Their three-month courtship included many strolls along the Coney Island boardwalk. Bea was captivated because Jack liked classical music, studied languages, and played chess, but mostly because he showed an interest in her. She told me her self-esteem had been badly damaged by her divorce, and also that she wanted to be married again to please her mother. The fifth of nine children—eight of whom lived to adulthood—she knew, as did all seven girls, that Mama wished the best for them. The best was a husband. When Jack proposed one May evening on a long walk from Coney Island back to her family’s home on 74th Street in the Bensonhurst section of Brooklyn, she accepted. They were married by a Justice of the Peace on July 4, 1941. I was born ten months later, on May 7, 1942.

A month or so after my birth, my mother told me, she arrived home from grocery shopping to find my father giving me a bath in the kitchen sink. To her horror, after he lifted me out of the basin of warm water, he filled it with cold and plunged me in. “Warm water opens her pores,” he explained over my shrieks. “If you don’t close them right away, she’ll get sick.” After that, my mother bathed me herself, when my father wasn’t home.

Another day, sometime during my first six months, my mother’s younger sister Sophia came to visit. According to the routine my father had established, my mother put me into my
crib after my evening feeding and closed the bedroom door. She and Sophia were about to leave for the movies when I let out a piercing howl. My mother started toward the bedroom. My father blocked her way.

“If you go in,” he said, “she’ll learn that all she has to do to get her way is cry.”

“You know I don’t usually go in,” my mother said as my wails continued, “but this isn’t her normal cry.”

“Don’t interfere! Go to the movies with your sister!

They returned several hours later to find my father playing chess against himself in a silent apartment. The incident was never discussed.

When I was two and a half, my father began to worry about being drafted. Until then, he had been exempt from military service because of an enlarged heart. Now, with the war raging in Europe and the Pacific, the Selective Service was calling up men who had previously been deferred. Rather than wait for their letter, which would almost certainly have meant being sent into combat, he used his typing, stenography, and language skills to secure a civilian position in the Army. He was to ship out at the end of October, but when he said his wife was expecting a baby soon, Army officials allowed him to wait a few weeks.

My brother, Marvin, was born on November 10, 1944. A week later, my father sailed for Italy, and my mother, Marvin, and I moved into Nona and Papoo’s house. Its four apartments were already occupied, some by family, some by other tenants, so we added ourselves to Nona and Papoo’s apartment. With our arrival, its three bedrooms were crammed with ten people, including Aunt Mollie, whose husband was also in the war; her one-year-old son, my cousin Jerry; and my unmarried aunts, Rae, Sophia, and Diana.

In the beginning of my parents’ marriage, my mother had deposited her factory salary into their joint checking account, but after she made a small purchase without asking my father beforehand, he’d taken her name off the account. Now, with Nona caring for Marvin and me, my mother found a job as a substitute teacher at P.S. 128, a ten- minute walk away, and opened her own bank account. She also passed the Board of Ed test to become a permanent teacher and, in February, three months after our move to Brooklyn, was offered a fifth-grade class at P.S. 54 in Bedford-Stuyvesant, much farther away. She accepted, even though it meant she would get home more than an hour later.

At about the same time, Aunt Sarah and Uncle Sam, who also lived in the 74th Street house, told my mother about a vacant apartment around the corner, above a dry goods store on 20th Avenue. Though hesitant to move out on her own with two children, my mother liked the idea of having privacy and went to look at it. The small living room and bedroom faced the back. It was winter—no leaves on the trees—and she could see the fences and clotheslines in all the backyards of the houses on 74th Street, right down to Nona’s. She decided to take it.

I was miserable at my sudden banishment—from Nona, my aunts, my cousins. On 74th Street, if one grownup was busy, another was glad to pay attention to me. Here, there was just my mother, who was always busy. “I’ll look at it later,” she said if I tried to show her a drawing.

Every morning while she dressed Marvin, I dressed myself. Then I asked her to tie my shoelaces. “I’ll be happy when you learn to tie them yourself,” she would say in an annoyed voice. “Hold still!” After we dropped Marvin off at Nona’s, she and I walked to the JCH—Jewish Community House—on Bay Parkway, where she had enrolled me in nursery school.

My mother was rushed when she picked me up in the afternoon, too. “That’s lovely,” she would say, tucking my painting into her bag. “Now get your hat.” We walked the quarter mile
to Nona’s. Still in our coats, we hurried through the upstairs hall and down the side steps to the basement, where my mother lifted Marvin out of his playpen.

Back home, she peeled potatoes and cooked lamb chops and canned peas, washed the dishes, wrote lesson plans, cleaned the bathroom, and darned socks. She hardly smiled anymore. Marvin was too young to play with, so I amused myself, either indoors or on the sidewalk in front of the dry goods store owned by our landlady, Mrs. Feigenbaum. Sometimes I asked permission to walk around the corner to Nona’s. My mother usually said yes and might add, “Tell Nona I’ll be over in a half hour to use the washing machine.”

I was invariably cheerful at Nona’s, where I got lots of love and attention, but with my mother I began to whine.

“Mah-meee, I can’t find my sweeeater,” I complained one morning.

She stormed into the bedroom in her suit and her new short haircut that I was still getting used to—“I have no time for long hair,” she said soon after we moved—and pulled out all the dresser drawers. “Here!” She flung the sweater onto my cot. Feeling like a worm you poke with a stick, I put it on quickly so we could leave.

Spring came, and the two trees in Mrs. Feigenbaum’s back- yard burst into flowers that pushed against our windows like pink ruffles. “They’re cherry trees,” my mother said, smiling. She opened a window, glanced down to make sure Mrs. Feigenbaum wasn’t in the backyard, and leaned out over the clothesline to cut some branches.

“Aren’t they beautiful?” she asked.

I wasn’t sure she was talking to me, but I said yes just in case. In May, days before my third birthday, a package arrived for me from Europe. My mother and I opened it to find the smallest record I had ever seen.

“Hello, Viv. This is Daddy, talking to you from across the ocean in Italy.” The voice on the Victrola was scratchy, but unmistakably my father’s. “Do you remember how I used to lift you high in the air and say, ‘Uno, dos, tres, arreeeeeba’? And do you remember how you didn’t want to go to sleep when I put you back down in your crib, and you used to say, ‘No quiero dormir’?” I did remember.

Soon afterward, on a day my mother was particularly annoyed at me, I said, “Why don’t you pack me in a carton and mail me to Daddy?”

My mother smiled, then said, in her teacher voice, “That wouldn’t work, because when they sealed the carton, there wouldn’t be enough air for you to breathe. You can never send living things through the mail.” It made sense.

“Mah-meee, my legs hurt,” I whined as I trudged alongside her one day, holding the handlebar of Marvin’s stroller while we walked for what seemed like miles. To the dry cleaners on 75th Street. The grocery store on 73rd Street. The shoe store on Bay Parkway. “When are we going home?”

She stopped suddenly and slapped my face. “Get out of my sight, you fucking bastard! Go shit in your hat! Your name is mud!”

When she screamed like that at home, I went to my room to color until she was in a good mood again. How could I get out of her sight here, when I had to hold onto the stroller?

We kept walking, in silence now, looking straight ahead, so I couldn’t see her face. But our hands were holding the same handlebar. I felt her loathing seep through it and into me, circulating in my veins. For a minute, I felt like the worm you poke with a stick again. Then a picture came into my head of a silly man taking off his homburg, placing it upside down on the sidewalk like a pot, and squatting over it to have a bowel movement. I laughed out loud. A moment later, I stopped laughing and began sucking the thumb on my free hand. After that day, the picture of the squatting, shitting man came

to me whenever my mother screamed, “Go shit in your hat!” I always laughed, even when she slapped me.

It was as if I had two mommies: a love mommy and a hate mommy. The one who loved me hung my paintings on the wall. She let me lean against her when she read my Little Golden Books on her bed in the living room and gave me orange slices to suck when I was sick and threw up, to take away the bad taste. When the mommy who loved me was there, I didn’t know about the mommy who hated me, and when the mommy who hated me was there, I didn’t know about the mommy who loved me.

Finding it increasingly difficult to balance work and motherhood, my mother applied for maternity leave when the school year ended in June. The Board of Ed denied her request. Leave was for new mothers only, they said. Marvin was eight months old. Seeing no other option, she quit, even though the principal wanted her to stay and leaving meant she would lose her permanent license. Her plan was to look for a substitute job closer to home in September.

With the summer off, my mother was more relaxed and didn’t scream as much. Almost every day, she tucked a pail and shovel, a towel, and my bathing suit into the stroller alongside Marvin for the three-block walk to Seth Low Park. Often my cousin George came, too. My mother would read on a bench while we played in the sandbox or cooled off under the sprinkler in the wading pool. Sometimes I could even get her to push me on the swings.

She did find a substitute job in September, teaching English at Seth Low Junior High, and I went back to nursery school.

Then, in November, exactly a year after he had gone, my father wrote to say he was coming home from the war. His ship would be sailing into Newport News, Virginia, and from there
he would find a train or bus to New York.

We were all at Nona’s one afternoon when an upstairs tenant came rushing in and said, “I just saw your husband walking on Twentieth Avenue!”

“Go! Quick!” Nona urged my mother. “So you be there before him to say hello.”


Vivian Conan is a writer, librarian and IT business analyst who lives in Manhattan. Losing the Atmosphere: A Baffling Disorder, A Search for Help, and the Therapist Who Understood is her first book.

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August 13, 2020 by

Daphne Merkin on the Nature of Love and Lust

Daphne Merkin is an essayist known for her take—at once both ferociously observant and fiercely introspective—on everything from depression, spanking during sex and the importance of handbags.  In 22 Minutes of Unconditional Love (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $26)) her first novel in more than 30 years, Merkin turns her gimlet-eyed attention to Judith Stone, a young book editor in New York City who has not yet had her first real reckoning with love—or with the erotic charge that often fuels it. 

Enter Howard Rose, the somewhat older attorney she meets at a party.  Howard arouses her in ways she’s never before experienced and very quickly, she’s putty in his hands.  That he’s inclined to insult, undermine and emotionally abuse her only makes him more desirable.  Merkin talks to Fiction Editor Yona Zeldis McDonough about the nature of lust, love and whether the two can ever truly be reconciled. 

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July 27, 2020 by

A Beloved Sci-Fi Novel Says a Lot about Gender and Politics

Kids today. (This isn’t going to be what you expect.) They navigate the world of gender fluidity freely. They don’t stumble upon words or terms. They are the natives in this world, and it can feel like we—the older generations—are immigrants in this land. We seem dated to them, from another time and place when things were needlessly complicated and needlessly cruel.

I was struck, when the pandemic led me to pick up the classic science fiction novel The Left Hand of Darkness, by Ursula K. LeGuin, by how prescient it is about this generational split. Once we were all the protagonist Genly Ali, an envoy from another world struggling to communicate with the Gethenians, struggling to convince them that his and other worlds exist, struggling to get them to understand the value of what he is offering them: knowledge, power, peace. And he’s struggling partly because he cannot understand their world, in which there is no war (but it’s coming); in which there is no gender.

Even as the novel seems timeless, and prophetic, and even as it offers us hope of another way of being as both individual beings and as citizens, there are reminders that it comes from another time and place. The default pronoun for the genderless Gethenians is “he,” and most of the scenes involve traditional male labor. We read nothing of childbearing, and little of cooking, cleaning, and nurturing, even as we bear witness to moving moments of kindness, all the more powerful for the backdrop of a harsh, cold, and cruel environment. Quite literally: this is a freezing, freezing land.

It’s also a land of great hospitality. In the land of snow and ice, that’s a necessity, but it’s also a value. This kind of hospitality for strangers in a strange land alongside family and friends is another radical lesson, even as it is one that for many of us within the Jewish community is easily understood. When you have a long history of being outside, you create a world that welcomes others in. Including outsiders (and gender non-conformers!) like Genly Ali, who don’t quite fit in and can’t quite understand or be understood.

We are all—but not The Kids today— Genly. We too, reading this now 51-year-old book, struggle to understand a world in which there is no gender; in which sexuality is limited to a set time each month—called Kemmer—for which one gets time off to satisfy these needs without embarrassment or judgment, or even pause; in which everyone can be both a mother and a father; in which there is no division of labor, no division of professions, no division of value, no division of desire.

When you remove gender, it turns out, you change everything.

That’s one of the enduring lessons of this remarkable novel, but it’s far from the only one. It’s also a finely drawn portrait of daily life and a great quest, with world-altering stakes. It’s a political treatise, musing about the relationship between nation-state and aggression, and asking whether those stages can be skipped entirely through a model of Enlightenment that is both aspirational, and, to these despairing eyes, impossibly naïve. And yet also deeply prescient. The novel asks: would you work with someone you hate to save the world you love? And, as it progresses and that hatred abates, the novel asks: would you sacrifice your life to save someone you love?

Sharrona Pearl is an Associate Professor of Medical Ethics at Drexel University. Her most recent book is Face/On: Face Transplants and the Ethics of the Other

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June 11, 2020 by

To Save the Planet and Ourselves, Root Down to Love

There are five things at the forefront of my mind these days; the national struggle against racist violence, the climate crisis, the coronavirus, death, family, but underlying it all… love. 

A phrase that’s always bothered me is, “You have to love yourself before someone else can love you.” At its core, it’s a true statement. Self-love is the foundation from which all healthy and fulfilling love grows.

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April 15, 2020 by

Fiction: Anniversary

MIRIAM’S HUSBAND broke his leg and couldn’t drive his cab any more. The unemployment money was hardly enough, life was getting dearer every week, and she was growing restless taking care of him. When they started arguing about the right way to twirl pasta on a fork—Manny said clockwise, Miriam counterclockwise—she’d had enough. The next day she took bus #18 to the shuk, and haggled with her old friend Sami for some flour, sugar, eggs, butter, and vanilla essence. Her persistence paid off. He sold her everything wholesale.

She set up shop in the apartment. At first the neighbors bought from her out of pity. When the sweet aroma of baking wafted daily through the dark corridors of the building, pity was soon replaced by gluttony.

When someone came to place an order, Miriam interviewed them, “Motek, tagid, who’s the cake for? What’s she like? What’s the occasion?” So on. Each cake was unique. For Mrs. Kroenig, who loved opera, Miriam made a cake with tiny sugar pyramids, a miniature Sphinx, and a turquoise rivulet of powdered sugar. Someone told Miriam the Nile was murkier, but she figured poetic license applied to pastries also. Mrs. Kroenig ate it on her balcony, Ritorna Vincitor spinning on the turntable.

Mrs. Kroenig praised Miriam’s talent to anyone who listened. That’s how the Shachars decided to relieve their daughter’s nostalgia for their native Romania with one of Miriam’s cake. Miriam looked at little Shoshi’s downcast eyes and was inspired. She covered the entire surface with arabesques of sugar roses. When Mr. Shachar picked it up, he took the longest path to his building in the squat gray complex, holding the cake before him. The kids playing ball on the parking lot dropped their game to gawk. It was the most beautiful sight anyone had seen in the working-class neighborhood of Katamonim.

Word got around. Jerusalem’s small. People came from other neighborhoods: well-dressed ladies from Rehavia; blue-jeaned students from French Hills; an occasional American tourist from the Old City. It was something to see, all those people coming through Katamonim’s run-down streets and into Miriam’s hot kitchen. The Voice of the City published a small item with the headline, “Let Us Eat Cake.” Miriam cried when she read it. “Struggled all my life and now, at fifty-eight, I’m famous!” She clipped the item, got it laminated and hung it underneath the picture of the mystic Baba Sali.

She worked six days a week, from the moment the Sabbath went out on Saturday night until three hours before sundown on Friday. She was never tired. If anything, her eyes shone and there was an extra zip in her walk.

One morning a young woman stopped in front of Miriam’s building balancing a cake on one hand. It was intact save for a triangular wedge. Scowling, she addressed Miriam’s teenage son, Rafi, looking down at her from the balcony.

“Hey! Your mother ruined my life!”

Miriam peered over Rafi’s shoulder. “What are you talking about? What’s with your shouting?”

“Your cake ruined my life!” The girl repeated. She threw the cake on the ground. It was decorated with irises because Iris was the girl’s name.

“Ruined your life? How can a cake ruin your life? Are you crazy? Are you diabetic, maybe?”

Several women opened their windows and decided it was the perfect time to beat their rugs, spacing out the whacks so they could hear every word.

“I ask you again, how could a cake ruin your life?” The women in their balconies and the children on the stairways stared, dying of curiosity.

“My fiancée took two bites and didn’t want to marry me!”

“And you blame me? Sorry, miss, but I don’t see how you can come here and insult me in front of all my neighbors!”

“You don’t understand. He looked right into my eyes and his gaze cut right through me. I could feel him read my soul!”

“So, sue your soul!”

The neighbors whooped with delight. At a loss for words, Iris shuffled back to her car. Miriam had won. Everyone laughed at the poor deluded girl and the incident would have been forgotten had Sami Myer not bought a cake for his wife shortly after.

That motzei Shabbat, Sam’s wife ran him out of the house. Then she strutted right down to Edna Toledano’s and nearly knocked her door down. Mrs. Myer claimed that once she ate the cake, all her husband’s secrets unfolded right before her. “It was like a book opening right before me!” Others came forward with similar stories, at first timidly. They grew bold as their numbers grew.

Before long, Katamonim was divided into those who claimed their lives had been destroyed by the cakes and those who dismissed them as idle superstition. It wasn’t all disasters, though. Old Mrs. Borenstein from Stairwell B bought one for her daughter-inlaw’s birthday. The young woman looked into Mrs. Borenstein’s rheumy eyes and began crying, “I didn’t know, I didn’t know!” They spent the entire night exchanging confidences, and fifteen years of mutual suspicion dissolved over a bottle of schnapps. One shopkeeper’s clerk bought one for his boss and the next day the store manager was fired and arrested. The clerk was promoted.

Indignant, Miriam denied it all, but after a while she stopped complaining. The cakes’ alleged magical qualities raised such a furor that orders increased. She had to hire three helpers.  Jealous wives and suspicious husbands slunk in at night to place orders. Lots of people were suddenly on diets and blanched at the sight of dessert. A new ritual sprang up at birthday parties: people would nibble a few crumbs, and then a hush would fall as everyone searched each other. Politicians proposed that no dessert be served at political meetings or in public places.

The head of psychiatric studies at Talbiah declared it a public mental crisis on a popular talk show.

“It’s a variant of Jerusalem syndrome. Mass madness has historical precedents! The Dutch tulip craze of the 1600s, for instance, or the panic provoked by Orson Welles’ War of the Worlds broadcast,” he intoned in an authoritative bass.

Some scoffed at the comparison: these were modern times, after all, how could anyone believe such superstition? In the meantime, Miriam nearly died of exhaustion due to the number of orders. Other bakers grew jealous and grumbled: if Miriam wasn’t guilty, why didn’t she publish her recipe? Fortunetellers and Tarot card readers were equally annoyed. This woman’s confections were threatening their millenarian monopoly on the Unknown. The Sephardic Head Rabbi gave a long speech in which he reminded the nation that certain mysteries were too heady and proposed that, like the Kabbalah, no one under the age of forty sample Miriam’s cakes. The Ashkenazi Head Rabbi praised God’s inscrutability.

Manny’s leg healed. Thanks to Miriam’s success, he bought his own taxicab. The truth was Miriam’s fame was beginning to disturb him. Her work no longer made her happy. People now ordered bare cakes so as not to give away their intention to eavesdrop on their neighbors’ souls.

“They might as well come from a factory,” Miriam mumbled. If she couldn’t make something beautiful what was the point of laboring over them? She questioned the very meaning of her life.

The constant assault of the press, the pressure to reveal her secret ingredients, the accusations and counteraccusations—all this kept her housebound for weeks. She was being crushed under the weight of her mystique.

No one in Miriam’s own family ate her cakes. It wasn’t out of superstitious caution. Her husband and children were simply tired of the cloying aroma. Manny never gave the accusations much credence until the day he ran into a fellow cab driver at a falafel stand.

“Go ahead, Manny. What are you afraid of ? Ask your wife to bake you a cake. See how you like it. Itzik here did just that for his ten year anniversary and what has it gotten him? His wife won’t talk to him!”

“Oh, enough already! You’ve all gone crazy, I tell you. As if we didn’t have enough problems!” Manny slapped his rolled up newspaper against the table. He left it at that and kept eating. But he couldn’t help but brood about it as he dropped off passengers. That night he woke up before dawn, like he had done so often when he couldn’t drive and worried about providing for his family. It was four in the morning, the hour when worries and fears rouse one from deep slumber. Miriam was asleep beside him, the tide of her breath marking the anxious minutes in which he lay awake looking up at the ceiling. He heard the muezzin call the Muslims to prayer, drawling out the ancient call, his voice drifting above the sleeping city. Manny asked himself, “Wasn’t it perfectly reasonable to want to know your wife better?”

He drifted off to sleep. When Miriam stirred a few hours later he pretended to sleep and observed her through his lashes. In the dimness, he saw she was no longer young, but he could see traces of the girl she had been. She still had that same wry smile when she thought no one was looking. She put on a robe and went to the kitchen.

“We change, we grow old,” thought Manny. “I’ve changed also. I too am old but when I look in the mirror, it’s a shock, a shock to see this old face looking back at me. I wonder, do our souls age?” He tiptoed to the kitchen.

The light filtered in from the window. Miriam sat in her robe, sipping mint-tea from a small glass. She reached into the shelf where she kept the salt and spices, and brought out a small radio held together with brown tape and rubber bands. She turned it to the morning news. Then she caught sight of Manny and jumped in her chair.

“You scared me, Manny! What’s the matter with you?”

“What’s the matter with me? What’s the matter with you? What are you so serious for?”

She laughed at herself and he tried to kiss her. She let him, but squirmed in his arms when she saw the time. “I have orders, I don’t have time for all this nonsense…”

“You’re such a busy businesswoman you haven’t got time to talk with your husband?” She sighed. She shrugged.

“Mirileh, do you remember that one time, before the kids came along, we were in bed—“he stopped and winked at her and she just looked at him, puzzled, until the memory clicked. She blushed. She waved at him to shut him up, but Manny continued.

“And then the bed fell and the legs broke?

” Despite herself, Miriam started giggling. “Was that us? That was another life!”

“Yes, my love, it was another life. And we couldn’t afford a new bed, then…”

“And you placed the mattress on some crates you found on the Midrehov…”

“Except we had to be careful so the mattress wouldn’t slip off the crates.”

“Those were hard days, hard days,” Miriam said.

Manny held his bearded chin with his left hand. “Yes, yes. But good days.”

“But good days,” she agreed. “Forty years!”

They sat in silence for a long time before Manny dared to ask, “Will you bake a cake for our anniversary?”

“But you don’t like cake!”

He drew invisible circles on the oil-cloth.

“Miri, I have to ask, all this balagan, all this talk about your cakes—do you think it’s true?”

“Oh, Manny, you know how people are! They’re not happy unless they make trouble for themselves.”

“Aren’t you curious?”

“Some things you shouldn’t try and find out.”

They sat still, listening to the creaking of the bus brakes outside and the indistinct talk of their neighbors in the stairwells.

Then Miriam shrugged. “Should we try it? Should I bake us a cake and find out?”

Manny looked at her face, and saw the puckering of the skin around her eyes. He stroked her hand as they pondered the question in silence.

“What if we stop loving each other?” was the question in Miriam’s eyes.

“What if I’m not the man you thought I was?” asked Manny’s gaze in return.

Looking at each other again, they needed no words.

“But it’ll be a small cake,” she warned.

“No use making a bigger one,” Manny said.

“And we’ll eat it alone.”

“No need for anyone else to have any!”

They held hands across the table. It had been a long time since they’d held each other’s hands like tongue-tied lovers.

Was it a sign? That day she didn’t have any orders to fill. As she mixed and measured, cracked eggs and poured vanilla essence, tasted with the tip of her little finger, she wondered: Could it be true? It was an old family recipe but she’d read many similar ones in cookbooks. Was it the butter, maybe? Had someone added something to the flour? As she mixed the batter, memories long-forgotten reemerged: the moments of doubt, the fights, the sleepless nights wondering where money would come from, the honest sweat of hard work, the long nights putting the children to bed and the stolen moments of mutual revelations. The early years of parenthood, when she woke in the middle of the night to breast-feed and Manny kept her company, talking about this and that. The kisses, at first passionate, and a little later, indifferent, cursory; the tears of jealousy, the recriminations and the apologetic embraces. The times Manny left for miluim, and she accompanied him in her imagination, picturing him in the desert or the Golan. The times she held her breath listening to the news or suppressed a jump when the phone rang. The times she prayed for him to come back safe. And then when their sons went into the army, the hours she and Manny enacted the waiting ritual together: Manny shuffling playing cards, and she mumbling psalms under her breath pretending to be dusting.

Those memories were theirs, really theirs, an abundant harvest.

She flavored the cake with bitter almond essence for the years of difficulty and stress; with rose extract for their early passion; and flakes of kosher salt for the times they’d been lonely despite the other’s presence. She decorated it simply with two marzipan gold rings and miniature braided challot. In pink letters she wrote, “Our daily bread, our love.”

The children came that evening. Their daughter Rivka cooked them a sumptuous dinner, their son Shlomi brought two bottles of Baron Herzog champagne, and everyone cried in admiration. Racheli, their daughter-in-law, sang “Erev Shel Shoshanim”, accompanied by Rafi on the guitar. Manny and Miriam stole glances at each other over their children’s chatter. At last the children left, the older two to their respective homes, the youngest to the movies.

They were alone. Miriam brought out the cake. She and Manny stood before it, with a similar anxiety and hopefulness with which they’d stood under the wedding canopy forty years before.

She cut two wedges. They chewed methodically. They swallowed. They waited.

“I don’t see anything. Do you?”

“Not a thing,” said Manny. “Now what?” asked Miriam.

But he was too busy wolfing down the cake to answer.

“It’s that good?”

“It’s delicious! How could I have denied myself the pleasure for so long?”

Miriam cut a bigger piece for herself and they ate without a care. Before they knew it, they finished the entire cake and sat back, fully sated.

“Miriam, I tell you, I tasted nothing like it! It’s the best thing you’ve ever made!”

“When my grandmother baked it, may she rest in peace, it was like food for the angels.”

That’s when it struck.

In an instant their inner selves unfolded before each other. Miriam saw Manny in his petty desires for other women, more money, easier work. And Manny saw Miriam in her need for serenity, her longing for a moment far away from him and the kids; and envying a neighbor’s new furniture or clothing. His long-forgotten dreams of adventure and travel. Her rage and frustration—which she was forced to disguise. Every aspect of themselves they’d previously hidden was now illuminated in chiaroscuro, like an old painting by a Dutch master, so that each one saw the other in full.

They didn’t just see each other with their eyes; each sense was engaged in appreciation of the other. Their souls emanated the lingering aroma of delight; the bittersweet balsam of melancholy; the spiky sweat of despair; and the purifying zest of hope. And the rising tide of these emanations was accompanied by textures: the viscous ooze of malice; the silken flesh of desire; the liquid coolness of confidence; the prickle of envy.

The longer they sat without stirring, the more concrete and real the other became. As the evening progressed it became a conversation in which they spoke in their own impenetrable, unutterable language, which only they could perceive.

Finally, they broke it off. There was still life to attend to. There was so much they’d never know about the other. Miriam and Manny sighed with placid exhaustion. When Miriam looked at Manny again – and he at her—, all was as before.

They said nothing, there was nothing to say, and the first look they exchanged was timid. They both had the same question “What will he think of me now?” “Does she still love me?”

Manny looked at Miriam fully and she returned his gaze. And they sat there, truly together for the first time ever, as morning broke and the sun rose over the city. 

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