Six Days in October| September 14, 2021
JJ wouldn’t have schmoozed anyway. He would have grilled him. Worse, he would have said no to the boy right off the bat
October 5, Thursday
When she’d done all the things she could possibly do, Michal found a hole of 20 minutes that needed to be plugged in order to stop the thinking, so she adjusted the plate of cookies on the coffee table and checked on Yossi reading in his bed upstairs, called Rikki who was hiding out at a friend’s house, wiped down the kitchen counters, and peeked in on Aily to tell her she looked beautiful and that the cream dress looked perfect. Then there were still five minutes, which isn’t too many minutes in the grand scheme of things, so she let herself think. And when the bell rang at 6 p.m. sharp, she was sure she’d ticked off all the boxes and called all the references and checked all the many things that needed to be checked about the boy behind the door, and she thought that JJ would be proud of how methodical she’d been for once, but that didn’t really help now anyway. Besides, she still hadn’t seen him, which is all she really needed to do in order to know if he was right for her daughter.
Calm down Michal, you sound like a kindergarten teacher.
“Hi.” He smiled.
“Please come in. Aily will be down in a second.”
5’11” it said on the resume, although some references had said he was 6” and she knew not to trust them too much after that. He had the same grey eyes as his father, only flecked with fiery amber instead of opal. Though maybe his father’s eyes had fire when he was twenty-two as well. Then she stopped herself from going there and cleared her throat.
“Did you find the house okay?”
“Sure. Gotta love Waze.”
She smiled. “In the olden days we had to rely on our G-d-given sense of direction and the kindness of strangers if we got lost.”
He smiled back the way anyone his age would humor an ancient forty-year-old. “Sounds like an adventure.”
She was caught off guard by the silence that ensued because she’d done everything, the homemade cookies and all the silly research and now she’d even seen that there was laughter in the creases around his mouth and at the corners of his eyes there was something bright and alive and she knew that the boy in front of her was perfect for her daughter. Perfect. But the man who should be schmoozing him up was gone, and suddenly she was not sad, she was angry, which hurt in a whole different way.
“Can I get you a drink?”
JJ wouldn’t have schmoozed anyway. He would have grilled him. Worse, he would have said no to the boy right off the bat.
Happy for the brief reprieve, she took the crystal pitcher of ice water and poured it into a glass, careful not to splash and to fill it to the adult line. You see? This was all it took to know. His face is open and kind and my goodness, wouldn’t it all have been easier if I’d just met him three days ago? Instead of… Her cheeks turned pink at the memory.
A gem, they’d said. And who wouldn’t want a gem for their daughter?
She held out the glass for him to take, but he shifted slightly on his feet and the grey in his eyes grew windy like a storm rolling in. She watched, equally fascinated and horrified as the boy stood frozen, grappling with something unseen.
“You’re the lady,” he said at last, without any trace of emotion.
“I’m…” The back of her mouth felt dry and she realized she’d taken a wrong step on the road to protection and that the yawning ravine beneath her was very large and very deep. The glass of water became impossibly heavy and she lowered it onto the mahogany table, and all the universe seemed to descend with it.
“The lady with the mirror,” he explained, as if to jog her memory.
Some nameless instinct, born twenty years ago along with her daughter, had failed her. And now that fragile thing dropped unceremoniously from her heart to her stomach and shattered down to her toes, cracking her daughter’s future wide open.
“The mirror,” she said flatly, neither a confession nor denial.
She noticed a burst of fire leap across his eyes before he blinked to put it out.
“You just happened to be on the block? Just, you know, parallel parking outside my house?”
She looked away quickly, then realized there was something kind in his probing. He’s saying it all for me, she thought, so I won’t have to seep into the grime of justifications and rationalizations.
“It’s a dead end.” He continued. “Really small block. Growing up we didn’t even have enough boys to get a ball game going. Tough times.” And like that he took the whole proposition in one hand and chucked it in the trash because the probability of being on the quietest cul-de-sac on planet earth, way across town…
And she was grateful because he’d done all the hard work and she just had to nod in acknowledgment of gigantic mistakes made.
Aily’s heels could be heard clopping above them and they both looked up, then back at each other. She struggled to meet his eye.
“You’ll still take her out?” she said in a small voice.
“Of course.” He looked insulted. “You think I’d just leave?”
He almost reached for the water still trembling in the glass, then looked up at her instead.
“I’m sure you understand…” He left it at that, the implication that after all he’d been through, a lunatic stalker mother-in-law was not something he was willing to take on.
She nodded, this time with respect.
A gem, they’d said. And they were right.
Aily’s heels clicked down the stairs and she appeared at the entrance and looked at them oddly, sensing she’d missed an earthquake on account of the dust, the shape of untouched water and the rose color on her mother’s cheeks.
“Hi,” Ari said with a smile.
“Hi.” She smiled back.
“Ready to go?”
“Bye,” Michal called after them.
“Bye,” she whispered to the shards of what could have been.
October 1, Sunday
“How come you never painted Daddy?” 13-year-old Yossi asked. And once he said it, Michal wondered why he’d never asked before, if it took courage for him to say the words, if they’d sat for ages on his tongue, turning stale before he finally got them out with a thud.
Why haven’t I?
JJ had never understood her art, her ability to read people, see people — in fact, he didn’t like people all that much. When they met at 19, Michal hadn’t known any better. She had yet to learn her craft. She hadn’t realized that being quiet came with sidestepping, withdrawal. That having few close friends made every social event a hassle.
And after those first surprising months, where she grew lonelier by the moment, she began to study faces in search of the thing missing in her husband, so at least she would know what it was. The face of the woman behind the register, the flower guy on the corner, her own. She would sit on the train with sunglasses and watch the way eyes became animated or wide in fear, or lips curved upward in unbridled glee. After Aily was born, she’d push her to the park and sit for hours, one eye on her little girl, the other on everyone else.
As time went on, she thought more and more of the scholarship she’d given up to marry the man who promised to take care of everything, promised she wouldn’t work a day in her life. (No small thing for a girl who’d penny-pinched her way through life.) And she didn’t. But her hands became restless and itchy as all the unused talent tingled in her fingertips, snapping for release. And that’s when she began to bring a pad of paper and pencils to sketch. And soon she could tell by a face what sort of heart went with it, by the crinkles and wrinkles and lines, by the shade of the eyes and if they danced in the light or shied away. When she saw a face, she saw a world.
Why hadn’t she painted JJ?
Because his eyes were often dead? Not really dead… but not alive, either. Life, for him, was a long to-do list, which didn’t make him a bad person, but did make him a difficult spouse.
But she couldn’t tell Yossi that she never painted his father because when she was in shidduchim, her own mother saw JJ as valedictorian and a man who could manage a successful chain of nursing homes, but she couldn’t see that his eyes were so focused they would never see her daughter. How could she have known that JJ found color far too disruptive for his streamlined life, that he thought art a waste of time, peculiar, silly…
And while she struggled to answer Yossi’s question, way across town, Shiffy Greenstein was calling Masha Lesting to give a yes to Baila (“Aily” — what a name!) Felenberg, and at that very moment, Michal closed her eyes and made a silent promise that she would do everything in her power to make sure her daughter married someone alive, with all the passion and laughter JJ never had. When she opened her eyes she realized she still hadn’t answered Yossi’s question.
“I’m not sure, Yossi,” she lied at last. “I’m just not sure.”
October 2, Monday
The voice note was long:
You know me, I’m a straight shooter, Michal. I’m going to give you the whole story off the bat, no secrets. The mother walked out on them when he was two. Just up and left. She lives in South America and has nothing to do with them. Now just hold on. Just hoooold on before you jump on me. Because I’m telling you right now, the boy is a gem. Like, not normal gem. Dr. Weinsfeld raised those kids like you’ve never seen. His sister Shiffy — you know Shiffy Greenstein? No, not your circle, okay, well his aunt does his checking and she’s relentless, only the best for her nephew, and I’m not exaggerating when I tell you the woman has a terabyte of résumés for Ari and she gave a yes to your daughter! You should be jumping out of your skin thrilled. Go look into him, Michal, go make some calls. Find everything out. And then call me back and they’ll go out Thursday, okay?
At the top of the page she’d written Ari Weinsfeld in bubble letters. Underneath she wrote Find Out…???
If she could just get a glance, she’d know.
She didn’t want to start taking notes and asking questions about this young man’s spare time or who his friends were. But of course, that was just what Aily had been worried about.
“You’re gonna look into the guys, right? Like, do research?” Aily had asked after a few suggestions came their way. “Like you’re not just going to find some guy walking down the street and ask him if he’d like to marry your daughter?”
Michal crossed her arms. “Hey, you can tell a lot about the way a boy walks down the street, the way he holds himself, his stride. I bet I could tell you more about a boy by watching him walk down the street than what I’m going to get from his best friend on his résumé—”
Michal laughed. “Of course I’m going to look into them.”
“But, for real? Like, the way Daddy would have?”
And then there was a pinch to her heart and a pain in her throat because there were so many things she could be, but her dead husband wasn’t one of them. JJ had been methodical where she was social, he had enjoyed numbers lined up in rows and she loved the chaos and color of humanity.
She sat and stared at the page with Ari’s name at the top. She could look into the boys, but it wouldn’t be the way JJ would have, because people lie anyway, and all she really needed was to see him to know. That’s all the research she needed. But because she was a student of the face, she suddenly realized she had an advantage and a disadvantage. On the one hand, she would be able to see things others couldn’t, but on the other hand, she’d only meet him after putting her stamp of approval and telling Aily that she felt he was a good match. His eyes will tell me more than his roommates, his smile will tell me more than his rebbi. I’ll meet him when he comes to pick her up, but what if I see something? At that point it will be too late…
You’ll look into the guys, right? The way Daddy would have?
Michal sighed. I’ll make the calls. I’ll dig through the dirt like a dog scrounging for information. She wrote down his details: 5’11”, 4300 Birch Street, DOB February 17, 1999. She made a list, like JJ would have, with questions and phone numbers. She saved Chanchy for last because she wasn’t sure she’d know the family, but Chanchy was a friend who knew almost everyone, and it was worth a try. Then she sighed loudly because all she really wanted was a glance.
October 3, Tuesday
Afterward, she would find comfort in the fact that at least it wasn’t really premeditated. She was dropping off a portrait on that side of town and took a different route home and passed a street called Birch and a little light went off in her brain — 4300 Birch — and she turned without thinking and then parked near the house and waited. For what? The chance that the brown-haired boy of 5’11” might just happen to walk out?
For a split second she allowed logic and good sense to pull her upward and she peered down at herself with the frank realization that she’d completely lost it. Off the deep end, Michal, just totally off the rails. But then again, she’d promised her daughter to her face that she’d make sure to do research, and words on a paper meant nothing to her in the same way they had meant everything to JJ. She wanted to see the boy. Bumbling chavrusas couldn’t tell her a quarter of what a face could.
She noticed a few little girls run out onto the lawn and around the back. She lowered the window, the smell of barbecue tickled her nose. Family barbecue… Those must be his nieces. Maybe he’s here! She pulled up closer to the house, there were cars parked all along the street but she got as close as she—
A sickening nausea rose from her stomach to her scalp and she let it wash over her, closed her eyes and luxuriated in those few seconds before she’d have to face what just happened. Then she opened them and peeked. She’d taken off the side mirror of the white Prius parked outside the Weinsfeld house.
She put on her hazards and left the car. Her first thought was to flee. Run for your life. Then she realized a nice house like this definitely had cameras and she would need to man up or suffer. She cradled the mirror in her hand, mustered up every bit of courage she had, and walked up the flagstone path. As she knocked on the navy door with the gold handle, some distant part of her brain wondered if the aunt did the decorating as well.
A pleasant looking man in his mid-forties opened the door. “Hi,” he said, with just a hint of question tucked into the corners.
“I’m so sorry,” she croaked. She thrust the side mirror awkwardly toward him. “This… happened.” She knew her face was bright red. I deserve it.
He took the piece, looked at her, looked down at the mirror, turned it over and examined it.
“I’m sure we… I… have insurance. My husband always took care of those things, I think he tried to explain it all to me at one point before he died, something about paying out of pocket for smaller damages so the premium doesn’t go up? Am I… is that the right word?” She blinked, then added, “Not that this is small! Oh gosh, it’s a whole side mirror! But like relatively… You know, it’s not the, uh… engine? Or whatever. So can I maybe give you cash…?” She trailed off uncertainly.
“First of all, are you okay?”
She knew he meant it because his brows creased just so and there was such sincerity in his voice that she thought she might burst into tears that very moment on account of being very not okay.
“Oh, gosh. I look like a crazy person, don’t I? I’m fine.”
A little grin played on his lips.
“I’d be happy to help you with the insurance stuff, if you want me to explain—”
“Oh no, no, I’ve already ruined your perfectly good car, I won’t take up any more of your time.” She grabbed a pen from her purse and rifled around for a piece of scrap paper, then scribbled her number. “Just, um, call me and let me know the price and I’ll drop off the money, if that’s okay?” She backed away quickly before he had a chance to ask her name. She knew his sister dealt with Ari’s shidduchim, but still, if he recognized her name…
“Wait, did anything happen to your car?”
“I didn’t check…”
He stepped around her and walked down the path, past the giant red maple and onto the street, straight toward the black Odyssey. He examined the right side carefully and her heart flip-flopped when she realized her notepad with Ari’s name in bubble letters was sitting face up on the passenger seat.
“Looks totally fine,” she said quickly.
He turned back to her.
“It’s the setting sun.” He sighed, then leaned his back gently against her minivan. And the way he said it, so quietly but with such confidence, made her realize she agreed. She didn’t know what “it” was or what the sunset had to do with it, but whatever it was — she agreed.
“It sets right in the eyes through the windshield. Can’t see a thing this time of day.” He gestured toward the sky and Michal swiveled around and saw the loveliest sunset she’d ever seen. It set all the turning leaves on fire, the auburns and saffrons alight, speckled with diamond dust painted in gold leaf. And suddenly she could smell all the glory of summer now falling from the sky, but it didn’t make her sad, the way it usually did. Because for once she didn’t see impending death, stark branches upon gray skies waiting right around the corner; instead she saw that what was once plain green had become technicolor, that the leaves had absorbed all the wonder that is singed marshmallows and jarred fireflies and the jingle of an ice cream truck and now the height of summer was compressed in piles on the grass and swirling in the sky all around her, and the thought rose in her mind that there may be such a thing as too much goodness. It was so lovely it scared her.
“Blinding.” She nodded. “But… so nice.” Then remembered what she’d just done. “Sorry, oh gosh. Not nice when I’ve just sideswiped your car…”
“No, no. I also think it’s beautiful. I miss it over the winter when I’m still at work. Sometimes in the fall I’ll rush out a bit early just to catch it because it’s nice that once a day all the imperfections are blurred and everything’s—”
He caught himself, the way any sane person does when they’ve overshared with a perfect stranger. He cleared his throat and looked back down at the mirror in his hands.
“You know, they’re just putting out junk these days,” he said, his voice a deep, steady rumble. “It’s all plastic. When my father was a kid, things were built to last, a Sherman couldn’t take off a side mirror. These days they’re practically disposable.”
His kindness made her heart ache.
“My mother had her fridge for 35 years,” Michal said. “She still has her dryer from the ‘80’s! Meanwhile we go through a dryer—”
“Every three years,” he finished off for her, shaking his head.
There was a moment of silence and she noticed the waves in his gray eyes were speckled with opal calm. She looked away quickly.
“So, you’ll call me with the price, please?” She started toward her car.
“You sure you’re okay?” he called after her.
She nodded. “Sorry. Again.”
And then she left, head spinning, and very sure the son raised by that man was the gem they all said he was. So sure, in fact, that she never even noticed the boy in the window, watching the whole thing.
October 4, Wednesday
Hey, Chanch, I’m looking into Weinsfeld? Was wondering if you know him
Abt to say yes , speak now or forever hold your peace
She’d promised Aily she’d do her due diligence, and she had. The notepad with the name Ari Weinsfeld at the top was full: enjoys hiking, loves taco salad, will sometimes play basketball for 20 minutes after night seder, wears a fresh shirt daily… And she’d checked off every name she was supposed to call. She’d gone through every detail about the mother she could possibly find and at last she’d gotten to Chanchy — the very last person on her list. She was tired of calling people, tired of asking dumb questions, tired of trying to live up to what her husband might have done had he been here to do it.
She reviewed all the notes again. Doodles lined the margins, eyes and eyebrows and the profile of a nose, which reminded her she was late on the Kleiner portrait. Her phone rang and she saw Chanchy’s name flash on the screen.
“Why didn’t you tell me you were starting? I mean, I’m thrilled, it’s about time. And of course I know Sammy Weinsfeld, salt of the earth. I’m not exaggerating when I say he’s the kindest man on the planet. The way he raised his kids, all alone, and the way they all turned out, it’s not to be believed, Michal!”
Michal felt her pulse quicken. I should stop her. But something backwards and a little bit dark pushed her to stay silent and let her go on.
“Michal, listen to me. I literally can’t think of a better shidduch. He’s everything you need, sensitive and kind and stable and just… I’m gonna start crying — this is just…”
Something strange shivered up her spine, a sense of validation. So I’m not crazy. She drew a sunset frantically.
“I’ll be honest, I’d heard through the grapevine that he was interested because he called Chani Feld, you know — the shadchan, to ask about you, and she called me and I told her that you weren’t even thinking of starting yet. But obviously you changed your mind and I’m so happy!”
Michal’s pen stopped. He called a shadchan? About me? Her heart tripped over its own steady beat.
“Ari…” she shouted quickly into the phone. “Ari Weinsfeld for my Aily.”
They tread in silence for a few seconds, the way friends of a certain closeness can do, even during extraordinarily uncomfortable moments.
“Oh.” Chanchy said at last. “Okay. Okay! That’s great.” There was a pause like she was mulling over what else to say. “I mean… you can’t both… that would be weird…”
“No. Not an option. And anyway, really, I’m not ready,” she lied.
That was all Chanchy needed to pick up steam. “Ari is a gem. I’m not even joking, Michal. I’m sure I’m not your first call, you must know this already. His aunt does his checking — she’s a monster, zol zein gezunt un shtark, says no to almost everyone. If she said yes to Aily, don’t even make another phone call. A gem, Michal. They don’t make them like the Weinsfelds. Like Ari Weinsfeld,” she corrected herself quickly.
When she hung up, Michal stared at the frantically scribbled sunset, then turned off her phone and left the house. She walked, a habit she’d picked up after JJ’s diagnosis, to deal with the stress. The walk itself had become an island of stability, untouched by the vicissitudes of radiation, chemo, remission, chemo. There were things on these walks that had become her friends in the worst times; the family of warblers on Lincoln, the mess of bikes on the lawn at the corner house. The lady with the poodle on Oak. Sometimes she read into the things she saw: If the bikes were strewn about worse than usual she wondered if the mother was having a harder week. Sometimes she ignored it all and disappeared into her own brain.
This time she did neither. She looked at the leaves spelling the death of summer, now hanging by twig nooses from the trees. It made her heart shudder; she couldn’t see what she’d seen yesterday, the magic was gone. Instead, she focused her eyes straight ahead and counted the things she’d given up for her children. Her figure, then their savings (though JJ had recouped quickly), a chance to go to art school. A successful career as a high profile portrait artist. The sleepless nights, when they were little; the sleepless nights as teens. Her time, energy, patience, resources… and every bit was worth it. A husband? She could give up that too for Aily’s sake. Did the fact that he too felt a spark make any difference? No. Maybe. Yes.
But it shouldn’t! A gem, they all said. And who wouldn’t want a gem for their daughter? What bigger brachah is there in the world?
There would be time for husbands later, maybe. Now it was time to focus on Aily.
She called the shadchan the moment she got home. “Hi, Masha. What time Thursday?”
There are things you sacrifice for the people you love.
Later on October 5, Thursday
They said he was a gem, but they didn’t understand that when you grow up the way he grew up, with no mother to speak of and a hodge-podge of aunts instead and a father with a heart of gold but unaware of his own limitations, then you have to learn to listen and see beyond what’s in front of you and gather bits and pieces to put together puzzles. You need to think with more of your brain and work harder and grow up faster and do better than the rest of them, which is why Ari Weinsfeld glittered with confidence and maturity, why he outshone everyone around him; because he’d spent 22 years working. And he hadn’t meant to spy on his father, that day with the mirror. It’s just that the hot dogs were burning, which was weird, so he went to the front and peeked out the window, only to see his father holding Mr. Stern’s side mirror, leaning on someone’s mom-van and smiling. Smiling!
“Who was that?” he asked nonchalantly when his father walked in.
“Oh… just a lady driving by. Skimmed the side of Mr. Stern’s car. She thought it was mine. I’ll take care of it.” He paused. “Her husband died, so… Well, I didn’t tell her it wasn’t my car.”
“You got her contact info, Dad?”
“Hmm?” His father looked slightly dazed. He glanced down at the paper with the scribbled number, turned it over and noticed it said Michal F — Portrait Artist.
“Sure, sure.” He nodded.
“Did you get her name?” Ari prodded.
“Why all the interrogating?”
And then his father walked away humming “A Toast to Life.” And Ari thought something wonderful had happened between putting on the hot dogs and letting them burn, but he didn’t know what to do about it.
Until Mrs. Felenberg offered him a cup of cold water in her living room and he realized with a shudder that the magical lady that made his father hum Shwekey songs was a stalker. And because the boy wasn’t actually a boy but a fully grown, self-made man, he got annoyed. People had told him that being in shidduchim was brutal and the fact that his mother had up-and-left would cause problems, that people would search his history with a lice comb and pick out every bit of dust and examine it under a microscope. But no one had ever mentioned spying, stalking, or stakeouts, and for a moment he just wanted to turn around and leave. But he was too well bred to do such a thing. And anyway, the poor girl upstairs couldn’t help who her mother was. He knew all about that.
The problem was, Mrs. Felenberg wasn’t the only one in the room who could read faces. And as the lady held out the cup of water toward him, he recognized that she wasn’t evil or even psycho. She was a well-intentioned stalker, a well-intentioned stalker whose daughter he would not be marrying. But maybe… a stalker perfect for his father?
While they stood frozen, cup of water still in her hand, he filed through a thousand possibilities. Aunt Shiffy wouldn’t let him off the hook so fast but his mind was set, and anyway, he and his father couldn’t date a mother and daughter because that would be weird and wrong and at the end of the day he’d only ever met one person that could make his father hum frum pop. He blinked, decided, then took a pin and popped any chance with Aily Felenberg. And once that exploded, he made way for a whole different opportunity.
“You’re the lady,” he said at last. He felt bad because the lady’s eyes bulged like a fish caught in a net of her own making.
“She’s not for me, Aunt Shiffy.”
“It’s her name, isn’t it? Aily? Sounds like an antiemetic or a… you know… the medicine like Pepcid AC…”
“Yes! A genius you are, my Ari.”
Ari laughed. “It’s not because her name sounds like an antacid. It’s… complicated.” He knew his aunt wasn’t going to buy it.
“Nu, nu. Pepcid’s in school for programming and has a trust fund, bubbele, and you know I collect yearbooks so I saw a picture and she’s gorgeous. So please explain how it’s complicated.”
Ari took a deep breath.
“I think Mrs. Felenberg would be perfect for Daddy.”
He waited a beat, then another.
“Well,” she said softly, then let out a little giggle. “Well, well, well… You know you’re a gem, Ari? A gem.”
October 6, Friday
“Hello, Mrs. Felenberg. Sammy Weinsfeld. Just wanted to say everything worked out with the car. It wasn’t any problem, they replaced it for nearly nothing.”
“Sure, sure.” He coughed. “And I, well, Ari told me the whole story. I’m sorry for my son’s behavior, confronting you like that. I see no reason — well, I mean, it’s a mother’s right…” He trailed off.
“It was weird, and awful, and creepy of me.”
She heard a deep laugh through the phone that made her smile.
“Awful is a little strong. I’d stick with weird and creepy. But I explained to him that all we want is the best for our kids. That’s it. And sometimes that can be…” He struggled for the right word.
“Blinding?” she offered.
There was an awkward pause.
“And, I… uh, was also wondering… Feel free to say no… but can I take you out for coffee sometime?”
(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 878)
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