“Leave me out of your cult, I told her, and I shut her out of my life. We’d been real close before, and she’d ruined it”
On a whim — okay, possibly because I had some steam to let off — I decided to take the seven flights of stairs instead of the elevator after work.
What was Tamar thinking? Howard, when all the men in my life were Yanky-Moishy-Chaim-Sruli?
Only when I reached the building’s exit, still fuming, did I realized: I’d left my umbrella upstairs. Now what?
I couldn’t leave without an umbrella. It was pouring, and I’d just had this sheitel done. But going back to the office meant facing Tamar again, and I wasn’t facing Tamar again, ever.
She knew, I thought miserably as I jabbed my finger to summon the elevator. She knew, and that was the problem. She heard all my grousing about the ridiculous suggestions I was getting now that there was a sheitel on my head but no ring on my finger. I kept her updated about every lunatic’s résumé I got. The thrice-divorced guy, the fire juggler, the vegan father of seven, Make the sure the girl knows this, she’ll be cooking my meals after all.
And still. Still, she walks over to my desk, nonchalantly, like she’s reminding me to send an email, and suggests Howard, her neighbor’s cousin from Louisiana, training to become a commercial pilot, we can date in the air, what do you say to that?
“Can you forget all the technical details of his life for a minute and listen to me?” Tamar all but barked when she caught me slinking back into our office.
“Flight to catch,” I muttered.
“Goldie, stop. I’m serious. Listen.”
“I’m listening.” I grabbed my umbrella and held it in front of me like a mic. “Introducing! For the very first time! Goldie… and Howard… what-did-you-say-his-last-name-is?”
“What’s wrong with Klein?”
“How does Pilot Howard from Louisiana land such an ordinary, innocent, Jewish-sounding name?” I spun my umbrella. “I’m sure he at least spells it weird and different, like C-l-y-n?”
Tamar ignored me. “He’s in New York now.”
She stood up. “Goldie.”
“You’re acting like a two-year-old. Nobody is telling you to marry this guy. I know you, and I met Howard when I helped my neighbor set up for her son’s bar mitzvah kiddush. He came over to help, too, and I heard him talk. I watched him closely. There’s something about him. A sense of vitality. An easiness, a truthfulness, a… I don’t know how to describe it, a kind of spirit you can’t help liking.”
I didn’t respond.
“He does Daf Yomi,” Tamar continued. “He was just mesayem Shas.”
She narrowed her eyes. “I thought you cared about learning.”
“I do. Give me a Hershy who learns, watch me care.”
“Howard’s Hebrew name is Tzvi. Hershel.”
“You’re so stubborn, I could cry.”
I’d had enough. I turned to the door.
Tamar grabbed my shoulder. “Look, Goldie,” she said. “I need to be honest with you. The bar mitzvah is on Thursday, and after Shabbos, he goes back to Louisiana. I already told him about you. He’s waiting for an answer. What should I tell him?”
My fingers stiffened around the doorknob. Slowly, I turned back to Tamar.
“Tell him to have a safe flight.”
“I’ll never understand why you don’t leave your Shabbos clothes here,” my mother said as I dropped my bag on the bottom step. “You’re here every week, why pack and schlep?”
I agreed, she’d never understand. Just like she wouldn’t understand why she had to call to invite me — no, beg me — to come for Shabbos every week anew. Just like she wouldn’t understand why I chose to live alone in a small apartment when my old bedroom was empty and she’d gladly wash my laundry and cook my meals.
I went to the kitchen to help myself to kugel, not bothering to explain.
“Midi, or is your hem down?”
Oh, gosh, I’d forgotten, my mother had invited my sister for Shabbos. Sheesh, I’d been looking forward to a quiet Shabbos. The last thing I needed was four kids jumping on my head.
Fraidy was cutting up a tray of blondies.
“How are you?” I asked. “Where are your kids?”
“Outside. I think. Really, Goldie, don’t take this personally, but you need to be tall to wear midi skirts. You don’t want to look like you’re trying too hard.”
Wow, record-breaking. Four entire minutes had passed in my parents’ house without a single shidduchim tip. I yanked the oven door open.
Fraidy put down her knife and left to check on her kids. I sat down with my kugel and a magazine. But before I made it through one paragraph, my mother walked in, and sat down to schmooze.
“Good, baruch Hashem.”
“Did you get your air conditioner fixed?”
I was acting like a teenager, ugh. Why did every conversation with my mother have to be so stressful?
“The kugel’s delicious,” I said. “You use hot oil, right? My friend Tzippy puts seltzer into her kugel. Ever tried that?”
Ugh. Ugh. Where were Fraidy’s kids when I needed them?
“Anything doing?” my mother started. “I mean…”
I know exactly what you mean. You want to know if I’m dating anyone, if you can help in any way. The answer is no. Just plain no.
I made some vague sound.. My mother pushed her chair back.
“Goldie, people are mentioning names to me. I know you decided to handle your dating independently this time, but I think it’s okay to listen, no? Nobody will force you to meet anyone if you don’t feel up to it, but what’s wrong with taking down a name?”
Nobody will force you.
I nearly gagged. It’s normal, my mother’s voice rang in my ears. Every girl has qualms before she gets engaged. I’d be worried if you didn’t have any. I’m telling you, give it another shot, it’s only a date, you’re not committing to anything.
Only a date, and then another, and just one more.
And then there was one more date, and my “qualms” were reframed as “typical pre-engagement jitters,” and before I knew what was happening, there was a diamond on my finger and a wedding date on my calendar.
She hadn’t forced me. But I’d trusted her. She could have rescued me — and didn’t.
“Don’t be stubborn, Goldie. You’re an adult; you need to be open-minded.”
“I have a wide-open mind.”
“So why won’t you listen?”
I wrapped my hands around a bottle of seltzer.
“Unless… uh, are you in the middle of something?”
Something in me stirred. A wicked nerve, a thrill of sorts.
“Yup,” I answered casually. “A commercial pilot from Louisiana. His name is Howard.”
That’s when Fraidy and her kids burst through the door.
I successfully clung to Fraidy all through Friday night. Sisterly bonding, you know. I stalked her when she went to get a diaper from her room, I davened Kabbalas Shabbos when she did. If my mother was trying to catch my attention, she’d need to try a lot harder.
But after the meal, Fraidy treacherously disappeared on me and my mother all but accosted me. “The weather’s beautiful, should we take a walk?”
It wasn’t much of a question. I followed her out glumly.
Ma didn’t wait for an opening. “Tell me about Howard.”
Really, this was ridiculous. I had no right to torture my mother like this.
“Nothing,” I said. “I wasn’t serious. My coworker — Tamar Goldstein, remember her? — wanted to set us up. Dunno what she was thinking.”
“Who is he?”
“I told you, a pilot from Louisiana. And Tamar’s all excited because he does Daf Yomi.”
I turned to face her. “Ma, his name is Howard. He lives in Louisiana. I bet he doesn’t know what kishke is.”
“Therefore you wouldn’t marry him?”
What? “You’re joking, Ma, right?”
“Not at all. I didn’t say you should marry him, just asking if his limited vocabulary is the reason why you wouldn’t.”
Ma stopped walking abruptly. “Listen to me, Goldie,” she said. “I’m not interfering in your dating life, and I trust you to make your own decisions. But I want you to remember two things.”
She paused, waiting for me to respond. I grunted.
“First, the only thing I want is for you to be happy.”
Gugh. I kept my back stiff and looked straight ahead.
I waited. But Ma walked ahead, silent.
“You wanted to say something?”
We continued walking quietly. I was burning with curiosity, but my pride wouldn’t let me press her. What had she wanted to say? Did she want to give me a mussar shmuess how I was making a mistake, closing doors in my own face?
Or maybe… Was it possible…
Had Ma wanted to apologize?
And then, after walking in silence for several moments, Ma reached to pat my back.
“Follow your heart, Goldie,” she murmured softly.
Tamar swiveled in her chair as she bit into an apple. “Bit of an issue.”
I rummaged for something to snack on. “Issue?”
“Yeah. Howard Klein. He misunderstood what I said and, uh—”
“Oh, wow, auditory processing disorder? It’s good to know all chisronos in advance, they say. Let’s hear, what did you say and what did he understand?”
“So like, I don’t remember exactly what I said, something about you thinking about it? You know, classic shadchan excuse?”
“What do you mean, classic excu—”
“Whatever, it doesn’t really matter. Point is, you have to do this, if only as a personal favor to me.”
I’m not sure how I expected Pilot Howard from Louisiana to look — I hadn’t tried picturing him — but the first thing that hit me was that he was short.
And that his hair was long.
To be fair, not very short and not very long. He was just short enough that I didn’t feel short next to him, and his hair was just long enough to indicate that he’d never seen the inside of BMG.
On the spot, I made a decision: I wasn’t going to view this as a date. Because he wasn’t a date. He was Tamar’s neighbor’s cousin whom I needed to spend one evening with for Tamar’s sake. I would act cordial but cool.
“Didn’t expect to be finagled into a shidduch date on this bar mitzvah trip,” Howard said, chuckling. “But why not?”
Cool. And also cordial. Polite smile, here we go.
It only took about five minutes for him to launch into his teshuvah story. It was fascinating, and I would’ve been blown away had I not been wondering why he was sharing all this with me when we were still in the car. Where was the first-date gas prices talk?
He described his upbringing in Louisiana, attending services at the Conservative synagogue on the High Holy Days, his unexpected journey to Yiddishkeit, and where he was holding now — “I’m a member of the Orthodox shul now,” he told me proudly, “go there for all Shabbat services.”
Cordial. Cool. Help.
He burst out laughing. “Just teasing,” he said. “I daven with a minyan, know all the lingo, down to the yapchik. In fact I’m almost up to getting the reid from the Yeshiva World coffee room. Give it another year and you couldn’t tell me apart from an FFB.”
We were driving for half an hour when he suddenly turned into the parking lot of a big Barnes and Nobel. But instead of getting out, he just sat there.
“Okay,” he said. “What’s the deal?”
“You’re quiet, Goldie. What’s wrong?”
I fumbled with my seatbelt. “N-nothing wrong. I’m listening.”
“But you’re not talking.”
That’s when an impulse overtook me. I had nothing to lose. This situation was crazy and there was no reason for me to have to endure it.
“We’re different,” I blurted. “We’re so completely different, I don’t know what got into Tamar. I have no idea why we’re out on this date. I’m a sheltered Bais Yaakov girl, I’ve never been to Louisiana, I have a flip phone. We live on different planets. I feel bad taking up your time.”
A flash of surprise crossed Howard’s face, but a moment later he looked completely relaxed again. He drummed on the steering wheel.
I don’t know why that shocked me. What had I expected him to say?
I shifted in my seat. “So should we…?”
“If you want to go home now, I’ll take you.”
Silence. Howard waited. Well, I wanted to go home. Why wasn’t I answering him?
“Or if you want, we can go ahead with this date as planned, but I can’t carry a one-sided conversation.”
I sat still, fingers clenched around my seatbelt. “Okay,” I said at last.
Howard set the parking brake, then turned to smile at me.
“So tell me,” I said. “What made you think of becoming a pilot?”
How did my mother always know exactly the wrong question to ask?
“Did you decide about the pilot?” she asked before I had a chance to say good morning.
I slipped on my shoes. “No.”
“No, as in you didn’t decide, or no, you decided no?”
“The spinach quiche last night was delicious. I need the recipe.”
“And my chickens laid eggs this morning,” she answered smoothly.
Why had I answered her call?
In the kitchen, I threw together lunch in a fit of fury. I couldn’t believe she was doing this to me. Didn’t she harbor any regret? Guilt? Didn’t she realize she’d lost my trust?
Because I had trusted her. Until every one of my “pre-wedding jitters” had proven valid and I’d duly removed the ring from my finger. Then my trust went up in smoke.
I hung up the phone with the excuse that I needed to run to work. Which was true. But going to work was a frying-pan/fire alternative. Work meant facing Tamar, who was impatiently waiting for a report
Thankfully, Tamar was on the phone when I walked in. I got busy, ignoring her facial pantomimes while closely monitoring her conversation. As soon as I heard her winding down, I picked up my own phone and dialed Rob from Constax. This was the perfect time to make the hourlong call I’d been postponing for a week.
When Tamar realized who I was talking to, she wagged her finger at me. I snickered. I didn’t feel bad. First, because she deserved some agony after what she’d done to me. And second, because while it’s generally rude to keep a shadchan in the dark, considering there’s another party waiting for an answer, in this case, getting back to my “shadchan” would serve only to satisfy her own curiosity.
Because the other party had already asked me out again.
And I’d said yes.
Neat. Into the hole in a single, effortless stroke. Mini golf pro. And Tamar hadn’t even mentioned it.
We were talking about his teshuvah process again. I allowed myself to display open interest this time. It was important for me to understand Howard’s background.
I watched him swing his putter through the air in a casual circle.
“You know,” he said, “when my sister Alicia was discovering Torah, it was as though a fire had been lit in her heart. She was sure she could get everyone to see the light.”
He paused. “But I wasn’t interested. She couldn’t understand. It was so obvious to her, the truth of our existence, she couldn’t understand why I wasn’t convinced.”
He stooped to pick up the golf ball. “She lost me then. Leave me out of your cult, I told her, and I shut her out of my life. We’d been real close before, and she’d ruined it.”
“Ugh,” I said. “That’s awful.”
He tossed the ball in the air, caught it, and turned to face me. “It was awful, and I placed all the blame on her shoulders. She’d pushed too hard and created a rift.”
“I guess you reconnected after you caught the frumkeit bug?”
“You’re still not on speaking terms?”
“No, we are on speaking terms, but it wasn’t the ‘frumkeit bug’ that did it. We didn’t talk for a while, but then I woke up and realized I was shooting myself in the foot. We do that to ourselves sometimes, you know. Make decisions that hurt us, drill a belief into our psyche and refuse to dig past it. But I didn’t want that. Alicia made a mistake, but it was my choice if I wanted our relationship to dissolve or not.”
“So you made up?”
I reeled. “Wow. That’s… impressive.”
“Not impressive, really. It’s how life goes. Forget the people around you. If you choose to hold on to a grudge, you suffer. It becomes a pride thing, this stubbornness, and it’s hard to break it. I feel like it’s worth it to go out of your comfort zone once to buy comfort for always. Does that make sense?”
Did it? Theoretically, yes, of course. But on a practical level…
Was I being stubborn, refusing Ma’s s desire to help? Was I shooting myself in the foot?
We moved along to the next section of the course and to a new conversation. With his club poised, forehead creased, Howard aimed — and scored.
I mock-cheered. He grinned and wiped his forehead.
“I’m leaving tomorrow,” he said. “Wanna come watch me take off?”
I should’ve expected this, but I was still hit by surprise. What did all this mean? He’d extended his stay twice so we could continue dating. How many dates had it been now? Six? Seven? We’d spoken and spoken, and now? Watch him take off, and…? Wave as he became a speck in the sky, then return to work, lunch break over?
Howard Klein from Louisiana. Why did I even care?
“No pressure,” Howard added. “Whatever works for you.”
I wove the scorecard between my fingers. “Uh… I’m sure that would be interesting. What time are you leaving?”
Howard raked his putter through the ground. “I know what you’re thinking.”
“You’re thinking: We need to talk. He’s going home, where does that leave us? Right?”
I nodded stupidly.
“So really, there’s no reason to feel pressured. Take your time, talk it over with whoever, and if you want to go out again, just give me a holler. I’ll hop into a Cessna and fly over. No sweat.”
And then, just as smoothly as he’d glided into the conversation, he glided out of it, returning to our game and yet another topic of conversation.
Which is what I liked so much about him.
He was so easy to be around. So natural and normal and straightforward. What’s more, I found that I was more natural and straightforward around him, talking openly, easily, comfortably. And the more time we spent together, the more the truth manifested, that—
—that if I closed my eyes and pictured him in a hat and jacket—
closely cropped hair—
and answering to the name Zvi—
Three hours later, Howard dropped me off in front of my house.
“I’m taking off at two tomorrow, from Teterboro,” he said. “Like I said, no pressure, but…” He paused, drummed on his steering wheel, then made eye contact. “It’ll mean a lot to me if you come.”
No pressure or anything, right.
Howard was cleverer than I’d thought. Very nice, make things comfortable and easy, but…
…but it’ll mean a lot to me if you come.
In other words, going to see him off meant I was interested in pursuing a relationship. Not going was a diplomatic opportunity to cut it off. I’d be making a statement either way.
And I had sixteen hours to decide.
Talk it over with whoever.
Who could I talk this over with? Tamar? I usually felt comfortable discussing shidduch prospects with her. She got me, knew how to listen, didn’t push. But not this shidduch.
I kicked my shoes off and went to hunt for food.
When I was 19, it was all Ma. I discussed everything with her. She was my sounding board throughout my three-year shidduchim stint. My friends teased me that my mother was my BFF. I didn’t take it to heart; I knew they were jealous. Very few girls had relationships with their mothers like I had with mine.
Nobody was jealous now.
Okay, Goldie, supper.
There was a small piece of spinach quiche — which I did not like — in the fridge, and plenty of raw chicken in the freezer. Tuna sandwich it would have to be.
I cook supper every day anyway, Ma kept pestering me. Why can’t you just pick up a portion on your way home?
Why? Because I preferred my humble tuna sandwich over a gourmet meal wrapped in my mother’s guilt.
My phone rang but I ignored it.
I got a quarter of the sandwich down before I gave up. Then my phone rang again. Ma. My finger hovered for a moment, deliberating. I hit talk.
“I’m going to Target, want to come along?”
I did not want to go to Target. I did not want to go anywhere. I wanted a crystal ball to land in my house and tell me where to be in — I glanced at my watch — fifteen and a half hours.
On second thought, maybe Target sold crystal balls?
At least I’d push time.
It was in the paper goods aisle that Ma broached the topic.
“It’s hard to accept something you never envisioned.”
“You mean, paper coffee cups? I know, but the truth is I never liked Styrofoam.”
Ma swerved her shopping cart, blocking my passage. “You’re torturing yourself, Goldie. I have no idea where you’re holding with that… Howard?”
I nodded stiffly. How dare she? She had no right to get involved.
“And I don’t blame you,” she continued. “It’s a tough decision.”
And suddenly, I wanted her to get involved. I wanted her impart her “profound insight” and “sound advice,” so I would know exactly what not to do.
I hitched my foot on the bottom of the shopping cart.
“He doesn’t even own a hat.”
Ma was quiet.
“He eats corn chowder Friday night,” I went on. “He calls his mother Mom, he wants a noon reception at his wedding, he’s a pilot, and for goodness’ sake, his name is Howard!”
Ma still didn’t say anything.
“Well?” I said angrily.
“I hear you,” she murmured. “Chemistry but no hat.”
“Well, what do you say?” I snapped.
“I say you should go for it.”
“Go for it. What are Shabbos menus and chuppah timing compared to marrying a person you admire?”
I pounded on the shopping cart’s handlebar. “But he’s so different. Won’t you be embarrassed if I marry him?”
She paused. “Is this about me?”
“No,” I muttered. “But, you know what I mean.”
“I know what you mean.”
She knew. I knew she knew.
And I also knew — hated knowing — that my mother wasn’t telling me what she really thought.
She was telling me what I wanted to hear.
Like last time.
“Powder and paint make a girl what she ain’t,” Tamar sang.
“Were you up sketching bridal gowns all night?”
“I said go away.”
My voice was gruff. I pulled my chair close to my desk. Work. Blessed, challenging, distracting work.
Emails first. Didn’t everyone start their workday with emails?
Uh, no. Pilots probably started their day with itineraries.
I marked all promotions as read, just because I have this thing against unread messages. Then I started sifting for the easy emails. Confirmations, follow-ups, brainless stuff.
But I was done with all one-word responses too fast, and when I tried focusing on actual work I gave up.
Tamar was right. I had been up all night.
But it wasn’t only Howard I’d been thinking about. I’d been thinking about myself; what I wanted from a marriage. About Alicia, about Howard — about Ma.
About last time.
Last time, everything had aligned. Right family, right yeshivah, right hat. It was an ideal shidduch — until it wasn’t. And then, when all the rights turned wrong, I’d silently blamed Ma for failing to protect me from a marriage doomed for failure.
But it had never been her fault, she hadn’t forced me. She’d provided the encouragement I so obviously sought. Because… Because she’d sensed that I’d wanted her to encourage me. That I didn’t trust myself to decide and relied on her instead.
She was doing it again now. Not forcing; encouraging. Verbalizing my feelings for me. But ultimately, the decision remained mine. To make and to live with. And instead of valuing her support, I was shutting her out. Clinging to the belief that she’d wronged me and denying myself the comfort of having her at my side.
Another voice rose over my mother’s soft murmur. If you choose to hold on to a grudge, you suffer. It’s worth it to go out of your comfort zone once to buy comfort for always.
Did I want to marry Howard Klein? On paper, nothing aligned. Everything about him was wrong. His family, his education, his occupation, his attire. Yet somehow… I was thinking about it.
Like Ma had said, it was a tough one.
I had two hours.
The sun was fierce when I stepped out of my car. I didn’t see anyone in the parking lot. Squinting, I walked to the gate.
Go for it.
Ma’s voice — or my own?
The gate was locked, you needed a card to enter. I peered through the lattice. A row of small aircraft were neatly lined up along the tarmac. The place looked deserted.
Then, far down the row of airplanes, I spotted a figure. He was wearing a blue T-shirt and shorts, baseball cap over his long(ish) hair.
Go for it.
My own voice, nervous yet somehow certain.
I flipped open my phone and with sweaty fingers on my T9 keypad, typed the words, I’m here.
(Originally featured in Family First, Issue 704)
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