| Fiction |

In the Game

In every boy she dated she saw the brother she’d lost

 

Devorah looked down at her still-untouched soda on the coffee table in the hotel lobby and watched the bubbles crawl toward the top of her glass.

She and the boy sitting opposite her had successfully covered the rudimentary basics of each other’s lives. The boy had finished describing how the gas stovetop in his dirah spontaneously burst into flames one night; she’d learned that all of his roommates had been sleeping and was informed of the various innovative methods he and his neighbor had used to extinguish the fire.

Time to move on to the next topic. “So, what’s your family like?” he asked.

One large bubble burst at the surface of her Coke. Devorah looked up. Was he asking what her family is like or what her family was like? Did this boy want to know about her family before Ephraim got sick or after his petirah?

“My family is a lot of fun,” Devorah found herself responding. “Everyone’s really busy. I have a married sister — Elana, in Lakewood — who’s an accountant, but she comes with her husband and kids for Shabbos in the summer. And my younger sister was head of choir in her school’s play this year. I also have a younger brother who’s learning in Eretz Yisrael. And the youngest are twins, girls, in seventh grade.” Her head was spinning. “What about you? What’s your family like?”

The boy — his name was Nachum Goldberg — told her how his family planned their Chol Hamoed trip weeks in advance and how last year, when they’d found cheap airline tickets and set off for Montana with matzah and hard-boiled eggs, his younger brother had tripped over a tree root on a hike and broken his arm. After a brief pause, he served Devorah another question in their verbal bout of tennis. “Why did you choose to go into nursing?”

Devorah had known this question was coming, but she still struggled to respond. Was she supposed to tell him how she already knew how to give injections, that she was well-practiced in measuring out medications? That she had seen the pain illness brings, and wanted to do what she could to alleviate it for others? She fumbled for an answer. The soda had lost all its bubbles and she wanted to go home.

They finally left the hotel, abandoning her untouched soda to leave wet rings on the table. The drive home was quiet and far too long, and when she finally wished Nachum a safe ride home, Devorah closed the front door softly behind her and kicked off her shoes, wincing slightly as her toes touched the tiles of the hall.

“How did it go?” Mrs. Feldman appeared from the kitchen, her face tired and worn.

“I don’t think he’s for me.”

“Why not? What’s wrong?”

What was Devorah supposed to say? That he was nice, but the tie he wore was too similar to Ephraim’s favorite? The boy before had had the same hair color as Ephraim’s, a dusty brown; a different boy had the same nervous habit of rubbing his wrists together. Then there was the boy who drank his coffee without sugar the way Ephraim did, and that other boy who admitted he didn’t like color war, the same way that Ephraim didn’t, because the results were always followed by too many hard feelings.

And should she tell her mother that every time she was met with a similarity of Ephraim, it was suddenly hard for her to breathe? How was she supposed to move on when Ephraim would never be able to do the same?

 

“Do you know why you want to say no, Devorah?” her mother persisted.

Devorah shook her head. Now that she thought about it, Nachum had been funny; he’d made conversation, even pleasant conversation. If anything, she’d been the one who was reticent and withdrawn. Devorah shrugged. “If he wants to say yes, we can go out again.”

Nachum did say yes and she found herself once again fixing her hair and applying lipstick. Give him a chance, Devorah told herself in the mirror, and this time, really give him a chance.

For a second, third, fourth and fifth date, Devorah wavered. Nachum was kind; he told the manager how helpful their waiter had been and sent his thanks back to the chef in the restaurant’s kitchen. She could see how much he valued his time in yeshivah, how he could bring Torah into all of the conversations he held.

But did he really check all of her boxes? His divrei Torah were profuse and meaningful, but they weren’t as sophisticated as the divrei Torah Ephraim was capable of weaving. He was funny, but Ephraim was funnier. And even when she was laughing at one of his stories, Devorah couldn’t help but notice a spot on his shirt and that his laugh lasted too long. He was sharp, but he wasn’t as sharp as Ephraim.

She knew that Nachum liked her: He nodded in agreement when she spoke about her values, he took a genuine interest in her opinions, he laughed at her jokes.

At the end of their fifth date, Nachum pulled up in front of her house and put the car in park. “So… I had a nice time.” He rested his hands on the steering wheel. “What about you?”

“Me?” Devorah asked, feeling panicked. “I… I had a nice time, too.” She nodded. “It was… good.”

“I’m glad,” Nachum said. “I really enjoyed, too.”

Devorah walked up the front steps to her house in a daze.

“I can’t do it,” she finally told her mother, her face in her hands, in tears. “I can’t say yes and I can’t say no. I just… I don’t know anymore.”

“I understand if you feel it’s going too fast for you, Devorah.” Her mother offered her a tissue. “You can take a break, you know. Do you want to do that?”

Devorah blew her nose, then took several heaving breaths. “I think… yes. I want to take a break. A break from shidduchim altogether. I just… I need a little time.”

“You understand, though, that you’re not going to keep him waiting?”

Devorah met her mother’s eyes. “Yes. I understand.”

Devorah returned to her schoolwork, to her internship, to her studying. She forgot about Nachum. Almost. She told herself it didn’t matter. He was a good guy. But not on Ephraim’s level.

 

The semester was almost over when another shidduch was suggested.

“Who is he?” Devorah leaned against the closed door and looked at the desk in her father’s study. Her father fiddled with a pen and her mother sifted through papers without looking at them.

“The name came up a while ago,” Mrs. Feldman said, “but we weren’t sure if it was a good idea.”

Devorah waited.

“Ephraim’s chavrusa.”

“Ephraim’s chavrusa?”

“Yisrael Lichtenstein. He’s learning, but he’s thinking to go to law school in a few years. We’ve heard excellent things about him.”

“Okay.”

The pen stopped moving between her father’s fingers and her mother stopped shuffling papers.

“Okay, what?” Mrs. Feldman prodded.

“Okay, I’ll go out with him.”

Once again, Devorah found herself at another table in another hotel lobby sitting in front of another tall glass of soda. This particular glass had a lemon slice and rapidly melting ice cubes.

“…and so, I was wondering — do you mind if I say something?” Yisrael was saying.

Devorah looked up, startled. Why was he asking for permission? She braced herself.

“Ephraim talked about you a lot. He said you were his favorite sibling.” Ephraim’s chavrusa tilted his head and, for the first time, Devorah was able to look at the boy she was dating in the eye. “He always mentioned how whenever you set your mind to something, you wouldn’t stop until you accomplished what you were determined to achieve. He said that he couldn’t wait to see how far you would go.”

“That does sound like something he would say.” Devorah smiled and took a sip of her soda.

Their conversations flowed; Devorah laughed easily when they were together. Two weeks later, she looked in the mirror while adjusting a bobby pin and realized, with wonder, that they were going out for a fourth time.

The sky was clear and the sun bright when Yisrael pulled open the car door and Devorah settled herself comfortably into the passenger seat.

“How does Dave & Buster’s sound?”

Dave & Buster’s sounded wonderful. Was it anticipation of the place, or the unseasonably warm weather that made her laugh aloud? Ephraim’s chavrusa merged onto the highway and accelerated. The dotted yellow lines blurred beneath the car’s tires and for a swerving moment, Devorah might have thought that he was driving too fast, but wasn’t it the spark in their conversation that made her heart beat faster?

Ringing bells and jangling chimes and pulsing colored lights greeted them at the arcade. Devorah watched Yisrael purchase chips at the counter. He returned waving a card with unlimited access to the arcade games.

“Ready?”

The wind rising from the air hockey table breezed through Devorah’s hair and brought a smile to her face. They must have been on their third round of air hockey.

“I could play this forever,” Yisrael said.

Devorah laughed as she defended her goal and sent the small disc ricocheting across the table. “Of course you’d be able to stop playing. At some point or another.”

“Nope,” Ephraim’s chavrusa said emphatically and Devorah looked up just in time to miss the disc sliding into her goal, “Never.”

Devorah smiled again, but this time she was less at ease. Of course her brother’s chavrusa should be able to stop playing a silly game — what was he really saying? But then again, his comment sounded familiar. Didn’t Ephraim always used to say that, especially when they were playing a game on Shabbos afternoon and he just didn’t want to pull himself away to go to Minchah?

“Let’s try a different game, at least,” Devorah said. She approached the arcade machine filled with stuffed animals and moved the lever carefully, adjusting it so the claw hovered over a fuzzy brown teddy bear.

“I’ll get us soda. Give me a minute.”

Yisrael was back a minute later, a soda in each hand. “You’re doing great,” he observed encouragingly.

Devorah smiled but didn’t look up; she didn’t want to lose focus. “Thanks.”

“The arcades bring back such good memories.” Yisrael sipped from one of the sodas. “Ephraim and I would always skip second seder every Thursday to play arcades near our yeshivah.”

Devorah wasn’t hearing him correctly. There was too much noise: dinging and buzzing and clanging and chiming. Devorah lost sight of the teddy bear and pressed the button on top of the lever haphazardly. The claw lowered, grabbed air, and returned to its original position. She looked up from her failed game at Ephraim’s chavrusa. “Wait — what?”

“He was really good at indoor basketball,” Ephraim’s chavrusa pointed in the direction of the little net hoops and the soft orange balls. “Want to give it a try?”

“Hold on. I don’t believe you.”

“You don’t believe that he was good at basketball?”

“Sure, he was good at basketball,” Devorah retorted. “But he was even better at learning. He was at the top of his shiur. He would have been going for semichah—”

Devorah found herself unable to continue; Yisrael looked at her expectantly.

“You don’t mean to tell me,” Devorah found her voice again, “that Ephraim wasn’t serious about his learning?”

“Of course, he was. But come on, Devorah, you know your brother. He also knew to have fun.” Yisrael shook his head, sighed heavily, and then looked her in the eye. “I’m not saying it was the best thing, or even a good thing, to do with our time. But that’s what happened.”

Suddenly the neon lights of the arcade room were pressing against Devorah’s eyelids and the pulsing screens of racing games were giving her a headache. There was no way that Ephraim had skipped second seder once a week; that’s not what his rebbeim had said at the levayah. They had called during the week of shivah, too — the phone had rung incessantly.

Some of them had made their way to the Feldmans’ house and sat opposite her father and her brother. Ephraim had been at the top of his shiur; he delivered mind-blowing divrei Torah each week at the Shabbos table; he was a serious learner. Wasn’t he?

Yisrael won a teddy bear and handed it to Devorah. She held the soft, fuzzy stuffed creature the entire ride home. Ephraim’s chavrusa dropped her off with a concerned look on his face.

“Are you okay?”

Devorah hardly heard herself answering him, empty phrases falling off her tongue. “Yes. Don’t worry. I’m totally fine. Thank you so much. Have a good ride back!”

She stumbled up the walkway to her house and shut the door behind her. Her head was spinning.

“How did it go?” Her mother called down from the laundry room.

“Give me a minute,” Devorah managed to reply. Leaving the teddy bear at the foot of the stairs, she opened the door to the basement and switched on the light.

The lonely light bulb flickered to pale life and she headed down the stairs, to the spare guest room, to where all of Ephraim’s boxes were stacked. She hesitated at the door, but the handle turned too smoothly, inviting her inside. In the corner of the room, there they were: five cardboard boxes, plain, nondescript. Devorah approached the boxes, ran her finger across the top panel and found dust.

Her parents had collected the objects in Ephraim’s room and stored them here. She’d never thought much about them, but now that she was here, she wondered if they contained as many seforim as she had previously thought.

Could Yisrael have been telling the truth?

Devorah opened the box carefully and peered inside. Seforim. It was only after she saw the neat stack of seforim that she realized she had been holding her breath. Invigorated by her discovery, Devorah pulled out the second box and opened the lid, faster this time. Clothing. Devorah reached for a third box, but when she pulled the cardboard panels apart on this one, she sensed something was different. Staring inside, she spotted the fuzzy ears of several teddy bears, foam basketballs, and— she shut the cardboard box and closed her eyes.

Devorah sat heavily on the floor. Yes, Ephraim loved a good game. Still, that didn’t negate his committed learning. But doubt edged its way into her mind, bringing memories along with it. She remembered how late Ephraim would stay out when he came back from Eretz Yisrael for Pesach break. Then there was the Motzaei Shabbos she’d run into him at the pizza shop. Devorah clutched her knees. Ephraim had made her promise not to tell their parents where he had been. You won’t tell Mommy and Tatty I was here, will you? I don’t want them to worry, I’ll be home really soon.

“Devorah?” Her mother’s voice startled her and Devorah turned her head. “How was the date? What are you doing down here? Why… are you crying?”

Devorah wiped at her face quickly and shook her head.

“The date went okay,” Devorah said. Looking back at the boxes, her voice momentarily faltered. “I… I don’t know why I came downstairs. Let’s go back up.”

Devorah entered the safe daylight of the kitchen, where she joined her mother at the counter, chopping onions and mushrooms while her mother cleaned chicken at the sink. When her mother turned off the faucet and pulled out a pan to cook dinner, Devorah told her about her date: They’d picked up iced coffees, gone to Dave & Buster’s, Yisrael gave her the teddy bear he’d won.

Her mother nodded apprehensively. “I saw you left it in the front hall.”

“Sorry,” Devorah apologized, scraping mushrooms from the cutting board into a pan. “I’ll move it later.”

“I should call the shadchan, then?” Mrs. Feldman nudged. “Do you want to go out again?”

Devorah started peeling an onion. At last, she said, “I need a little time to think about it. I don’t know if he’s for me.”

“What makes you say that?”

“I don’t know if he’s as serious as what I’m looking for,” Devorah said simply.

“You don’t think he’s serious enough? Devorah, he was Ephraim’s chavrusa.”

“I know.”

“Just because you went to an arcade today, that doesn’t mean he isn’t serious. It just means that the two of you had a fun date.”

Devorah slivered the onion into thin, even ribbons. “I know.”

 

It was late when Devorah finally sat down at the desk in her room. Before she could open her laptop, there was a knock on her door.

“Yes?”

Devorah’s mother opened the door and in her arms was the teddy bear from Devorah’s date that afternoon. “This was downstairs. It should go somewhere.”

“Thanks,” Devorah accepted the bear. Suddenly, she was crying again.

“What’s wrong, honey? Tell me.”

“He’s a really nice boy,” Devorah started. “The thing is…” Devorah hesitated. “I like him, but in my head he’s still Ephraim’s chavrusa. I don’t know whether I actually like him, or if… if… I like the idea of him. The way he reminds me of Ephraim. And today… today…” Devorah shook her head. “Today was difficult.”

Devorah’s mother nodded her head. “He’ll understand that there’s a lot to think about. Take a couple of days.”

And Yisrael did understand. Several days passed. Devorah went to school, went to work, came home. She tried to avoid thinking about Ephraim, about his chavrusa, about what she now knew.

Devorah was straightening up her room when she found the teddy bear from Dave & Buster’s. She picked up the stuffed animal and looked into its black button eyes. She wondered what Ephraim would have thought of the teddy bear — or of her dating his chavrusa.

She thought about the fact that Ephraim could always be depended on to drive at all hours without complaint: to the airport to pick up family members from red-eye flights, to 7-Eleven for midnight Slurpees, to pick up pizza on Motzaei Pesach after the kitchen was returned to its regular state. She thought about how Ephraim had taught her how to play basketball on the driveway, how he instructed her how to aim, how much power to put into her throw.

He had been the best brother she could have hoped for, she thought. And nothing would change that — not an arcade or a disturbing revelation or, Devorah realized, whoever she married. The fact that Devorah didn’t know everything about Ephraim didn’t take away from what they’d had.

Devorah picked up the teddy bear and ventured out into the hallway. She tiptoed down the stairs — her parents were already sleeping, and her sisters were supposed to be — and turned on the light to the basement. The door of the guest room was already ajar. She approached the boxes slowly and opened the lid of the box she had hastily shut days earlier. Peering inside once again, Devorah smiled and placed her teddy bear among the other stuffed animals in the box. Then she closed the panels tightly.

The next day, Devorah approached her mother.

“I’ve thought about it,” she said.

Her mother looked up from her paperwork. There was no need to spell out what “it” was.

“And?”

“I don’t think that Yisrael and I are… compatible. I know he was Ephraim’s chavrusa and they were such close friends and that’s very special to me. But I don’t think that we’re right for each other.”

Mrs. Feldman nodded slowly. “I hear you.”

“But,” Devorah continued, “I’ve been thinking about it, and I’ve been wondering if… can you find out if Nachum Goldberg’s available? If he’s… I think maybe we should try again.”

“I can certainly try,” her mother said. “But what made you decide that?”

Devorah gave a small smile. “Because I liked him. Because we had so much in common.”

And in her head, she thought: He might be right for me. And if he’ll make me happy — then I know that if Ephraim would still be here, he would like Nachum for me, too.

(Originally featured in Family First, Issue 672)

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