| Calligraphy |

Not a Dating Coach

Miri answered as succinctly as possible. She was here to uncover a fraudster, not examine her innermost self

Miri Tefler was a busy woman. The newlywed on the other end of the line was having trouble understanding that.

“No availability until August? Are you sure? Can you check again?” the girl whined.

Classically entitled, Miri thought. Probably the type that wipes down the counters in the morning, then takes a nap for four hours until her husband comes home for lunch. The girl doesn’t need therapy – she needs a job.

Miri shifted the phone to her shoulder and scrolled through her calendar again.

“I really don’t have any openings, I’m so sor—”

“But you’re the best! And I’m like falling apart over here. This legit isn’t working.” She lowered her voice to a whisper and said, “Honestly, I think I made a huge mistake.”

“Look,” Miri sighed, “I can give you some numbers of excellent therapists, colleagues of mine that I trust complete—”

“But my kallah teacher, Rebbetzin Kiffelbraun, told me I have to see you!” There was a pause, and then one little sob escaped through the line.

Miri moved the phone away from her ear, then put on her reading glasses and scrolled back up to April.

“Okay, Leah, was it?”

A muffled mhmm.

“I can squeeze you in on April 6th at 1:30,” she enunciated clearly. “Okay?”

“Ohmigosh, thank you so much. You just saved my life.”

Well, not yet, Miri thought.

When she hung up she realized she’d squeezed clients in during her lunch break the entire week. She rubbed her temples. Superheroes don’t need lunch, right? Especially when there are marriages to save. It was really the Kiffelbraun factor — Mrs. K sent her a steady flow of newlyweds who only required some basic guidance and then recommended her for years to come. She didn’t want to lose that by turning people away. Miri took off her reading glasses; her next client was here.

Baily had barely taken off her Louis Vuitton wristlet before launching into a comprehensive analysis of why Nosson forgetting to take out the garbage was indicative of a much larger issue, possibly stemming from the fact that he was delivered by c-section, which she’d heard could cause terrible trauma later in life…

When there was a pause, Miri held up her hand and looked Baily in the eyes.

“Baily,” she said slowly. “Do you remember the moment you decided that Nosson was the one for you? Do you remember what sparked that decision?”

Baily suddenly looked nervous. “I don’t really know,” she said, a little too quickly.

Miri sat quietly, waiting for more. Baily shifted on the couch.

“I mean, I liked Nosson. I thought there was potential, but I was back and forth and finally my best friend Chanchy told me I had to see Es-Tee…”

“Esti?”

Baily’s eyes widened. “Yeah, Es-Tee. She’s uh… like… this girl. Not a dating coach.”

Miri was intrigued. “Not a dating coach? As in, not licensed?” Alarm bells started clanging. If there was one thing Miri couldn’t stand it was unlicensed coaches. Fraudsters!

“Nooooo, like hashtag #NotADatingCoach – you must have seen her on Insta! She’s everywhere. She’s like basically a genius. She works with visualization.”

Miri was getting confused. It happened sometimes with her younger clients. The millennials were okay, it was the Gen Zs that had her wondering if she’d teleported to another planet. Her last three clients had to look up their spouses’ number on their phones when filling out their intake forms.

“How do they not know their husband’s phone number?” she’d ranted to Dovi. “What if there’s an emergency and they don’t have their phone on them?”

“They always have their phones on them, Mir,” Dovi answered patiently. “In the car, in the house, in the bathroom. It’s like a limb, dear. And if it breaks they’ll fix it faster than they’d treat an ankle. Don’t worry so much.”

Miri had huffed a bit, but she realized he was right.

Now Miri wanted to know more about this Es-Tee character. “Visualization… Is that kind of like narrative therapy?” she asked, trying not to sound like she was prying.

Baily waved her away. “No, it’s not therapy! Ohmigosh chas v’shalom, no, I definitely didn’t need therapy.” She laughed, then frowned, suddenly remembering where she was sitting. “Es-Tee’s just like in tune with what people need. She helps them visualize their future… And she only sees people max two times.” Baily met Miri’s eye, an undercurrent of reproach slithering between them. Miri responded with one raised brow. Baily looked away. “Anyway, after seeing her, I was like, yeah, Nosson’s the one. But maybe he’s not? Like my brother Yechiel never missed a minyan in his life, and I know he takes out the garbage…”

When Baily left, Miri decided to check the Google. She clicked the button to turn on her computer screen, and a huge picture of her, Dovi, and the kids on a fishing boat came up. Dovi had put it there when he set up her office computer years ago. She thought it looked a little unprofessional to have a personal picture splayed across her office computer, but she wasn’t sure how to change it.

In the search bar, she typed Esti, visualization, not a dating coach. A website popped up, she clicked on it, and a video immediately began playing. A girl who looked to be about 16 was wearing a black studded beanie and a long blonde fall, and was talking rapidly.

“Have you tried conventional dating coaches but you’re still single? Are you dating someone seriously but can’t seem to take the final step and actually propose? Do you feel blocked, like something is holding you back from saying yes even though the person you’re dating checks all the boxes? Then it’s time to try something totally different. Swipe the link below to schedule an appointment!”

Goodness, the girl barely looked old enough to be in high school!

Dovi poked his head into her open door. “Hey.”

Miri spun around. “You scared me!”

Dovi smiled. “Just what every man wants to hear when surprising his wife with a salad.”

“Sorry, you just caught me off guard. Don’t you need to be in the office?”

“I have a few minutes, had a few cancellations this afternoon.” He handed her a salad with feta cheese and sweet potato, then glanced down at his watch. “Isn’t this when you usually take a lunch break? I got a bagel for myself.” He lifted a brown paper bag.

Miri sighed. “Lunch breaks don’t exist for marriage therapists in 2021.”

“That busy?”

“Yeah.” She shook her head, feigning disappointment, but it felt good. Dovi had always been the busy one professionally. Years of medical school and residency and then finally his own practice — he always had an excuse. Now, with her practice booming and no little kids underfoot, Miri had one too.

“Well, go save the world, Mir.” He smiled. That was the line she’d always used on him, all those long years. And she’d meant it.

Sort of.

  

Miri forgot all about Es-Tee until Tuesday, when Leah showed up for her first appointment. She launched right into things and Miri let her vent.

“I just didn’t realize it would be hard.”

Miri nodded.

“When I went to Es-Tee she made it all look so perfect!”

Miri sat up straighter. She was a professional, she’d spent years keeping her reactions in check; she knew how to maintain a nonjudgmental expression. But inside she was boiling — Es-Tee again!

“Tell me, Leah.” She tried to keep any eagerness out of her voice. “How did Es-Tee make it look so perfect?”

“Oh, I don’t know. She just, like, paints it right, you know? And she’s got a binder of wedding invitations to prove it — all these couples she’s helped! And it’s so quick with her. You know how busy people are these days? Like especially young people, we’re totally juggling the world. I’m just bombed, you know? So like the best thing about Es-Tee is that she gets the job done quick. Two sessions and I was engaged the next week.”

Miri tried to nod calmly. “Do you want to tell me what Es-Tee’s process is like? So I can understand?”

But Leah had moved on. “I just didn’t know Binny would expect so much from me! In my house growing up dinner was a three-times-a-week sort of thing, not every single day! I never signed up for this…”

Miri ended the first session the way she always did with newlyweds. “Leah, I know things seem tough right now, but when there are two healthy people in a relationship with similar goals and desires, then there’s no limit to how wonderful marriage can be. It takes a little bit of good old fashioned work, but you’re going to be just fine.”

“But, like, how long will it take?”

Miri shifted. “Before you know it, you’ll be feeling a lot better about everything.”

Leah looked relieved.

Miri called the number on Es-Tee’s website as soon as Leah was safely out of the office. There was no answer, but her phone dinged a minute later — a WhatsApp.

Thanks for contacting Es-Tee! Would you like to book an appointment?

Miri was instantly annoyed. She wanted to know more about Es-Tee’s process! Her modalities! Her training! How was she supposed to snoop over WhatsApp?

She wavered for a moment, then typed back. I was wondering if you could tell me more about Es-Tee’s coaching process.

Another ding.

We have an opening on Sunday afternoon at 3. If you are currently in a serious relationship you may come in together with the person you’re dating for a consultation. It’s seriously awesome!

Miri looked up and saw Dovi’s face on the fishing boat smiling broadly back at her.

Well, technically I am in a serious relationship, Miri told herself. She stared at her phone, then back at the photo of Dovi, then typed, Great, we’ll be there.

Then she pressed send before she could change her mind.

She was going to have to make a really good dinner.

  

“No. Nope. Not happening.” Dovi pushed his chair back from the table, as if that was the end of the discussion.

“It’s nothing,” Miri said quickly. “I just want you to come with me to, um, observe this… coach.”

Dovi banged the table with his fist. “I knew it! You never make steak unless there’s a catch!” He smiled triumphantly, proud of his call.

“Dovi.” Miri smiled a bit too widely. “Imagine if you could cure one of your patients just by figuring out the source of his issue!”

Dovi raised an eyebrow. “If only a lowly internist could experience such a glorious thing but once in his lifetime.”

Miri waved her hand. “No, no, I’m serious! Imagine your patient had a problem that was eluding you and no one could figure it out and then the opportunity came your way to figure it out!”

Dovi shook his head. “I appreciate your, ah, passion. But this is way too weird, Mir.”

“Exactly! Es-Tee says she can cure people’s relationship issues in two sessions. I have clients I’ve been seeing since 2005! She’s messing with people’s brains, Dovi. We have to get in there and see what she’s doing. I’m thinking some sort of voodoo hypnosis acupuncture…”

“Hey — hypnosis is a thing. I’ve seen it work. I told you about the time in camp—”

“You told me. Listen. Please.” She let herself sound a little desperate. “There are people, girls and boys only a year or two older than our kids, who are suffering, Dovi.”

“I have the shul board meeting tonight.”

Miri blinked. “I have the Kleins’ bar mitzvah.”

“Thursday I’m seeing patients until seven.”

“So am I.”

He loosened his tie. “Sunday morning I’m on call until eleven. Then I’m taking Chaim and Tuli to baseball before my chavrusa with Fisher.”

“I have exercise at nine, I’m recording a podcast for Miri’s Marriage Mantra at ten, and then I’m giving a lecture at the kollel at 12:30 for newlywed women.”

Dovi stared at her for a minute, then folded his arms and sighed. “What is it you want me to do exactly?”

“Just pretend we’re dating. For one session. On Sunday at three. Please?”

“This is insane.”

Miri broke out in a wide grin. “Thank you!”

  

Miri Tefler was nervous. There was no reason to be nervous, she wasn’t actually dating Dovi. They’d been married for 22 years. Still, she felt jittery on the way to the appointment.

“I just want you to know that if this takes a disastrous turn and your little ploy gets discovered I’ll plead the fifth,” Dovi said, shattering the silence. “Or I’ll lie and say I had no idea, I’ll tell her I thought we were going to a ball game and you kidnapped me. You’re on your own, Mrs. Tefler.”

“Not Tefler — Friedler! Use my maiden name. We can’t let her know we’re married.” She slipped off her rings and stuck them in the cup holder between them. They drove in silence a while longer.

“This is kind of nice. When was the last time we took a trip together? Just me and you?”

Miri thought for a minute. “When I took you for the colonoscopy in January.”

Dovi frowned. “I’m hoping this will be at least as pleasant at that was.”

“Well, I’m just not sure. These little upstarts, pretending to know what they’re talking about. I’m expecting the worst. Let me do all the talking, okay? You just nod along.”

“So just do what I always do?”

Miri rolled her eyes.

The basement office was all white. White couch, white water cooler, white coffee maker, white walls. In a failed attempt at a pop of color, a sad purple orchid sat on a white side table.

“It’s like they robbed Ikea,” Miri whispered to Dovi.

Es-Tee entered the waiting room, smiling widely.

“Hi! I’m Es-Tee!” she started. Miri saw her smile wobble for a moment. There was an awkward moment of silence, then she held up a polished finger. “Just give me one sec and I’ll be right with you.” She walked quickly back through the door she had come from.

Miri followed.

“What are you—” Dovi began.

“Just getting some water,” she said, standing as close to the door as she could. She could hear muffled whispers.

“But Shmuli, they’re old… Second marriage… Can the system even handle such old people? We can’t use the swinging kid image, they’re way too old for kids… They have to be in their forties! ”

Miri hurried back to her seat when she heard footsteps. Es-Tee appeared again, her smile firmly glued in place. She handed them each a white tablet.

“Welcome to Visualize with Es-Tee,” she said confidently. “I’m so happy you chose to come today.” Miri cringed as she launched into a speech she’d clearly given many times.

“So, like, people these days have become more visual, with all the new technology and social media and stuff. For a lot of people, it’s not enough to trust what they feel, they need to see things. We help them do that.”

“Who’s we?” Miri interrupted.

Es-Tee blinked. “Oh! DH Shmuli and I. He’s the brains behind all the cool tech stuff we use. It’s a mixture of AI and CGI and a whole bunch of virtual reality programs and whatever. If you can please fill out the forms on the tablets, we can get started. When you’re done, hit the send button, and the data will load to our computers.”

She left the room and Miri turned to Dovi. “Can you believe this … I mean, can you even…”

But Dovi was diligently entering his information onto the tablet. Miri sighed and hit start.

If you could take a loved one anywhere in the world, where would you go?

What kind of giving makes your heart soar?

How would you choose to spend a day off with a loved one?

Miri answered as succinctly as possible. She was here to uncover a fraudster, not examine her innermost self. Besides, she didn’t even know the answer to half these questions. Who said there even were answers?

Dovi was still hunched over his tablet when Miri hit send, and Es-Tee called her into the office.

She was sipping something that looked like crushed lemonana from a huge cup. Miri frowned as Es-Tee swirled the drink around, then took a big sip from the straw. Unlike the waiting area, this room was filled with color, muted, rustic and oddly feminine. The lighting seemed distinctly flea market and the furniture had an overtly shabby chic feel that grated on Miri’s nerves. One wall was brick with #NotADatingCoach graffitied all over it in pastel green. Another wall was painted a deep purple with upbeat words set in a swirling ring in the middle to create a wreath. Celebrate.Fun.Give.Kindness.Love. If the waiting room was a study in monotony, the therapy room was an explosion of life. My, my, the self-aggrandizement never ends… Miri sat down carefully on the plush velvet sofa, as if it might crack beneath her.

“I see what you did here.” Miri smiled tautly at Es-Tee. “You know, with the juxtaposed décor.” Es-Tee gave her a strange look, then adjusted a big camera on a tripod.

“Okay, let’s jump right in. I’m going to take a series of videos of you which will then be edited to give you a glimpse of what your life with…” She looked down at her open laptop. “Dr. Tefler might look like. The full four-minute video will be ready next week, but we’ll give you a short preview at the end of today’s session. It’s super fun! So the first thing I need you to do, Miri, is give the camera a big smile.”

Miri stretched her lips.

“Great — now hold that smile and walk toward the camera.”

Miri noticed another two cameras, one at her side and one behind her. She didn’t like this. She stepped hesitantly toward the camera, then stopped. Es-Tee’s head poked out from behind. “I need you to try to look as natural as possible. Why don’t you tell me what you do? Sometimes talking helps people loosen up.”

“I’m a licensed therapist.” Miri stood straighter.

“Great, now turn around and walk toward the wall. Keep talking if that helps. Uh… tell me what your perfect morning would look like.”

Miri turned toward the wall. “My perfect morning would be going into my tastefully decorated office and helping people overcome challenges in their relationships.”

Es-Tee poked her head out from behind the camera. “Okay, cool.”

She probably feels so dumb, Miri thought triumphantly. She didn’t realize I’m an actual trained therapist.

“Can you wave to the camera?”

Miri frowned, waved. “Keep talking,” said Es-Tee. “Describe a scene to me.”

“Well, in my office I usually have dark coffee in a thermos on my desk. I make sure not to sip it when I’m in session, obviously. The room has two paintings — one of a starry Paris skyline, another of a spring day in the country. Of course I have my diploma prominently displayed — it boosts my clients’ confidence in my ability to help them. Proper training is crucial to the process.”

Es-Tee came around the camera and stared at Miri for a long moment, their eyes locking. A spark of remorse came over Miri. Maybe she’d gone too far.

“Sorry—” Miri started.

“I’m just trying to figure out what to do with your sheitel,” Es-Tee mulled, narrowing her eyes. “Can you try pulling the hair behind your back… I know its hard cuz it’s like lob length…”

Miri continued to pose according to Es-Tee’s instructions for another ten minutes. At last Es-Tee told her to sit down on the couch.

“Okay great, our engineer is almost done with your preview. She works remotely, she’s literally a magician. I can’t wait for you to see…” She clicked a few buttons, then gave Miri a special visor and headphones. Miri slipped them on and waited. The lights grew dim. She could hear Es-Tee clacking away. Then the lights turned on and Es-Tee told her she could take the headset off.

“Sorry, there seems to have been… um… a glitch in the system and the preview isn’t ready. We should have everything sorted out before your session next week.”

Something in her tone made Miri guess Es-Tee knew she wouldn’t be returning next week.

As she left the room, she spied Dovi coming out of an identical room at the other end of the hall. He shook DH Shmuli’s hand and they walked together to the car.

“That was amazing.” Dovi shook his head in wonder as they climbed into his Prius. “I mean sure, its untraditional but… wow. I mean, I’m seriously impressed.”

Miri could barely lift her jaw from the leather seat. “You can’t be serious.”

Dovi looked at her. “What do you mean? That preview at the end? That was incredible! Epic. I only have one question.”

Miri folded her arms. “Just one? I have about thirty billio—”

“Miri Tefler, will you marry me?” Dovi scooped up her diamond from the cup holder.

She took her ring, jammed it onto her finger and looked out the window. The sun was setting crimson as they drove home. Miri felt it in her heart — the slow sort of sting that came with intangible things like jealousy and guilt and other awful feelings she generally buried under work and lectures and Miri’s Mantra podcasts and supper and carpools.

She was not going to ask Dovi what he saw in his preview.

She didn’t ask after he helped Tuli with his homework. She didn’t ask while he barbequed on the deck. She didn’t ask after dinner while he sat with a tea as she wiped down the counters. She didn’t ask when he turned to her and said “’Night, Mir.” She simply didn’t respond.

He let out a deep sigh because after 22 years of marriage Dovi knew silence was the loudest sort of noise there is. The scariest too.

“You want to know what I saw, right?”

She nodded.

“Well, you and I were together. It was a gorgeous spring day, there were cherry blossoms everywhere and the sun had that feel to it, you know? Like bright, but not quite summer. And we were heading into the Herr’s chip factory for the tour. We were older, though—”

“Older?”

“Maybe mid-sixties… Don’t worry, you looked great for your age.”

Miri’s eyes widened.

“I mean, of course you looked great for your age!” He cleared his throat. “You just had a shorter sheitel. And you turned to me with this big smile and I smiled back, and everything was slowed down and there was music playing in the background and then together we walked into the factory and it was just… I can’t describe it. It was perfect.”

Miri’s mouth formed a little o. “The… potato chip factory?” she stammered.

“Yeah, it’s kind of a big deal for me. It’s the place I figured out what I wanted to do with my life.”

“That’s where you realized you wanted to be a doctor?”

“Nah, I wanted to work in a chip factory. But when I found out how much tuition is for frum families…” He shrugged. “Had to go for plan B.”

“You never told me that.”

“Uhhh, I’m pretty sure for the past 22 Chol Hamoed Succos trips I’ve put the Herr’s factory down as my number one desired destination. I’m always outvoted. What does Six Flags have that Herr’s doesn’t?”

Miri smiled.

“It wasn’t just the place, Mir. It was just, being older with you, there was this peaceful sort of bliss between us. It was amazing.”

By the time he was finished talking, Miri had decided to cancel all her morning appointments for tomorrow. Couples would suffer, but sacrifices had to be made. Someone had to take this girl down.

“So what did you see?” Dovi asked.

“Everything I needed to.”

  

She waited in the white waiting room without an appointment. A couple was there, a girl who looked to be about 19 and a boy a bit older. They stared down at their phones without speaking, statuesque except for their ever-moving thumbs. When Es-Tee brought out the two white tablets for them, she spotted Miri, and her eyes widened.

“Why don’t you two start filling out these forms. I’ll be right with you,” Es-Tee said. She backed away, toward the colorful office, but Miri stood up and followed her.

“What you’re doing is wrong,” Miri said as soon as the door closed behind them. “You’re promising people something that isn’t real!”

Es-Tee stayed surprisingly calm. “I’m not promising people anything. I’m offering them a vision. I’m showing them what could be—”

“No, you’re offering them a moment they won’t ever have in reality. And when they realize that, they’re going to come crying to me, to pick up the pieces.”

Es-Tee crossed her arms. “Any two healthy people can make it work, they can make their own beautiful moments.”

“They don’t want their own beautiful moments! They want the one you packaged for them and tied up in a pastel bohemian bow!” Miri’s voice shook. “Wait — what did you just say?”

Es-Tee took a deep breath. “There’s this marriage podcast I’m super into. Her whole premise is that any two people who are healthy and have similar goals and desires can make it work. And it can be beautiful. So I’ve sort of developed my theory around that. I use imagery to give people the push they need to make the jump. You should totally check out the podcast, it’s called Miri’s Marriage Mantr—” Es-Tee stopped short, her hand flying to her lips as she realized who the woman standing in front of her was.

Miri stood a little taller, her eyes blazing a little brighter.

“Your virtual reality game is dangerous. It’s misleading,” Miri said strongly. “I know you think you’re getting couples to the goal, but the beauty of marriage is starting out with a blank slate. It’s finding those unexpected moments that pop up throughout marriage, the ones you never could have imagined. Even the ugliest ones, the most difficult ones, can ultimately be beautiful and a catalyst for bonding. Those moments are the glue. But if you give these couples a beautiful image to look forward to, they’ll never find their real beautiful moments. They’ll be chasing glitter. You’re setting your clients up for disappointment.” Miri turned to go.

“You know what?” Es-Tee called after her. “There was no computer glitch.” Two pink splotches appeared on her cheeks, her blue eyes flashing beneath her beanie. “We couldn’t give you a preview because the artificial intelligence we use said you aren’t compatible for marriage. Your answers were… just… selfish. I didn’t want to hurt your feelings.”

Miri stood very still.

Es-Tee looked away. “I have to take the couple out there,” she mumbled.

Miri blinked, nodded, walked slowly out the door. She walked past the couple about to see a vision of themselves swinging a baby between them while walking through cherry blossoms. Past the forlorn purple orchid and the white walls and into her SUV. She sat there feeling small for a very long time. She’d canceled all her clients, the boys were all in school, she had nowhere to be. The sun rose high over the trees and the birds chirped and the babysitters aired the babies in the park and the busy people stole coffee breaks and Miri thought. And the more she thought, the more it hurt; it had been so long since she’d done such a thing. Like an aching muscle, she found the pain uncomfortable, but not unbearable. And when she was done thinking, she went to her office and turned on her computer.

  

Miri Tefler showed up at Tefler and Fein at 3 p.m. The office manager behind the Plexiglas was a graying woman she’d never met before. The waiting room walls had been painted a rich navy. The chairs had been reupholstered. She hadn’t visited her husband at his office for years.

“Is Dr. Tefler available for a minute?”

The graying lady pulled off her glasses and frowned. “Do you have an appointment?”

“I’m his wife.”

The secretary looked surprised and motioned her through. Dovi was at his desk doing paperwork. She gave a light knock.

“Miri!” He looked worried. “Everything okay?”

She sat down in the chair opposite him. “Everything’s great. I just wanted to stop by to give you this.” She put two printed tickets on his desk.

He looked down. “The Herr’s chip factory tour?” A flash of genuine surprise came over his face.

“Next Sunday.” She grinned. Then she took a deep breath. “I just need you to know that it’s not going to be… well, it might not be anything like what you saw. You know that, right? Like the cherry blossoms and the saggy wrinkled face and the violins and all that…” She felt her voice catch at the unfairness of it all.

“I know.” He smiled. “It’ll be even better!”

“I hope so,” Miri answered. “But even if it’s not, it will be us. And whatever kind of memories we make, they’ll be real.” 

(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 854)

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