Mick Revises A Love Story
By Rebecca Klempner
Michelle dumped me the third week of August. The most annoying fallout of the breakup was the sudden necessity of finding a new apartment.
“I want u out by the 1st,” Michelle told me by text. “I’ll b @ Laura’s til then.”
Laura never liked me.
I rented the second apartment I saw. Taking Friday the first off, I moved in with a little help from my friend Carlos.
“Is this all you’ve got, dude?” he asked, scratching his head while staring at the half-empty U-haul truck. Truly, it was pathetic how little I could claim as my own after three years with Michelle. My clothes. A tattered recliner with patches on the arms. My laptop computer, the postage-stamp-sized desk it usually sat upon. The TV and most of the DVDs. Some movie posters. Michelle hadn’t let me hang them, so they’d been shoved into the back of a closet.
“You don’t even own a bed?” Carlos asked.
I shrugged. “I’ll crash in my sleeping bag tonight.”
“Man, you are officially pathetic.”
I rolled my eyes. “Thanks. Do I need to remind you that you live with your parents?”
“Only ’cause my mother cooks better than yours.”
“And doesn’t live 3000 miles away.” I didn't mention his recent divorce.
“That, too.” Carlos shoved the ramp back into the truck with a clatter. “Do you even own a bowl for your cornflakes tomorrow morning?”
I pulled out the keys and headed for the cab. “We’ll have to stop at the store on the way to the apartment.”
We drove a circuitous route in order to pick up dishes, toilet paper, and other essentials. I took an unseemly amount of pleasure in picking out the ugliest dishes I could find, as if I were punishing Michelle. I even paid full price.
It was kind of sad how quickly Carlos and I got everything into the apartment. The scanty furnishings made it look enormous even though I knew it was only 750 square feet.
“Maybe we should hit a couple garage sales, Mick,” said Carlos.
“Not tomorrow,” I said, rubbing my shoulder. “I think I pulled something when I lifted the chair.”
“Sunday then.” Carlos slapped me on the shoulder. “Good luck.”
I hugged him back. “Thanks for everything. I couldn’t have done it without you.” As I walked him to the door, a feeling of loneliness crept over me. I escorted him all the way to the elevator.
As the doors slid shut, I noticed a guy watching me. “Hey,” I said.
“You the new neighbor?” the guy asked. He had an accent — maybe Korean, maybe Chinese — and a spiky haircut.
“Yup. I’m Mick.”
He gestured towards his chest. “Chikao.”
“Wanna come in for a beer?”
“Sure.” He padded barefoot down the hallway and into my apartment. I headed for the fridge.
“You speak Japanese?” Chikao asked as I handed him a beer. He was standing in front of the Tampopo poster that was leaning against the wall.
“Nope. Just love the movie.”
“That I love the movie, or that I don’t speak Japanese?”
“That you don’t speak Japanese. Juzo Itami is cool.”
I popped the tops off our bottles, and we drank for a few minutes. Then my neighbor asked, “What do you have planned for tonight?”
“I was hoping for a hot shower. I think I pulled a muscle.”
Chikao took one last gulp, then wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. “You should wait.”
“Wait for what?”
Who was this guy? “What do you mean, ‘You should wait’?”
“It’s Friday. Didn’t they warn you? Everyone in the building but us and the Korean family in 304 is Jewish.”
I looked at him. “I’m Jewish, too.”
He arched an eyebrow. “Really?”
“Just ’cause I don’t wear a kipa or anything doesn’t mean I’m not Jewish.”
“Okay, okay. Sorry. Anyway, with everyone getting in the shower at once on Friday afternoon, the building tends to run low on hot water.”
“They all take showers to get ready for Shabbos. They’ll all be done by sunset, though.”
“‘Shabbos.’ You sound like my grandfather.”
“That's the right word, isn't it?”
I nodded. “I grew up calling it ‘Shabbat,’ but yeah.”
“You got a recycling bin?” Chikao asked, looking around.
“Not yet.” I grabbed a plastic shopping bag and tossed the bottles in.
I ignored Chikao's advice and paid the price. The lukewarm water did nothing to relax the muscles I'd strained while moving.
When I got out, I grabbed my ratty old robe (I'd ditched the satin one Michelle had given me) and propped myself up against the wall with a couple pillows (beat-up, lumpy ones — all the good ones belonged to Michelle). I sat my computer in my lap and flipped it open.
Having no more exciting plans, I changed the status on my Facebook profile, sent out my new address to friends, and paid a few bills online. That final activity at least prevented me from feeling too sorry for myself. My bank account was full, thanks to my novel having recently been optioned. If Michelle had dumped me three months previously, I would have been crashing on Carlos's mother's couch.
The next morning, I woke up with a crick in my neck from sleeping in the sleeping bag. Slipped into a pair of jeans and a t-shirt, I let myself out. I needed coffee badly.
As I came out of the elevator, the door opposite opened. A man emerged from the stairwell dressed in a dark suit and a black hat, a child holding each hand. He smiled. “Ah! The new neighbor, I presume?”
I extended my hand. He let go of the older child’s and we shook. “I'm Mick Blumenfeld.”
He shook even more enthusiastically, replying, “Sender Osherowitz. And these are Suri and Nosson.” He gestured towards each child as he introduced them.
“You headed out?” I asked.
“We're going to shul!” Nosson announced. His father ruffled his hair.
I pushed open the double doors to the street.
“Well, Shabbat shalom,” I said awkwardly.
I watched the Osherowitzes walk away before heading in the opposite direction, passing dozens of dark-suited men and long-skirted women. Children skipped behind many of them.
I hadn't paid much attention to the neighborhood when I'd checked out the apartment, although I had noticed an unusual number of signs in Hebrew and Farsi, sometimes transliterated into Roman characters. Most of these establishments were shuttered now for Shabbat, but I found a familiar chain coffee shop and headed inside.
When I got home, I flipped open my laptop and checked my email before attempting to crank out a thousand words before lunch. The message at the top of my inbox was from an old college friend, Nicole.
Thanks for the update. Somehow I didn't realize you'd moved to L.A. Did you know that Freya's out there, too? Jenn mentioned visiting her recently . . .”
Freya Tjolsen. We'd been part of the same group of friends in college. I'd had a thing for her, and I suspected she'd had one for me, too — just never at the same time.
I opened a new document and started writing:
Freya was one of those girls who tended to blend in until she opened her mouth. No one in our college cafeteria was smarter or funnier. In class, she had a tendency to sit in the front row, much to Nicole’s dismay. She’d complain, “If I want to sit with Freya, she won’t let me hide in the back and doze off.” But if you missed class, you could always borrow Freya's notes.
Alone, Freya was different. Quiet. I got the impression that she was hiding behind the flannel shirt and baggy jeans we all wore. Her tousled hair looked scruffy rather than sexy, and her glasses swallowed her face.
In February of our junior year, the horrible cough I’d been fighting almost since I’d shown up for classes developed into pneumonia.
Not long after I returned from the doctor, Freya landed on my doorstep. She had a reputation for mothering all her friends.
“It's soup,” she explained. “I heard you need some.”
“Thanks,” I said, stifling another cough. I gestured for her to come in. Freya carried her pot to the stove, then set about ladling out a bowl of soup for me. I sat at the little table and ate a spoonful.
“Good.” The steamy broth filled me with warmth, and I could feel all my muscles relaxing instead of clenching to fight the next cough.
She smiled nervously. “Do you need anything else?”
I thought for a minute. “The doctor set me up with all sorts of nice drugs. I think I'll be okay.”
“You let me know if you need anything else.” She let herself out quietly.
When I felt better, I returned the pot, but Freya wasn’t home. Her roommate accepted it with a promise to pass on my thanks.
The next September, a half-dozen of us went swimming off the pier late at night. Never comfortable in her own skin, Freya quickly stripped down to a tank top and panties and dove in. I caught just a glimpse of skin so pale it glowed in the moonlight.
Jenn and Nicole and Jenn's boyfriend Craig and his friend Jason splashed and fooled around in the river, but Freya swam away from them with surprising grace. I followed her. The night swallowed most of the color from her copper hair as it trailed behind her in the water.
She stopped suddenly and began to tread water.
“Did you see that?” she asked me.
Puzzled, I said nothing. She added, “Watch!” then dropped back under the surface. She began to wave her arms slowly through the current. As she did so, they assumed an eerie greenish glow. I dunked under, too, waving my own hands. Stars twinkled all along my skin. We jetted back up to the surface.
“Bioluminescence,” Freya said, smiling. Her eyes looked large and strange without glasses, but her smile was filled with wonder.
I stopped typing for a moment, savoring the memory.
By the next week, I'd acquired a bed, a sofa, and even a couple of decent pillows. I had a table and four chairs, not new but serviceable. I invited Carlos and Chikao to come over for Indian food. Chikao had mysteriously told me he'd provide the entertainment when he accepted my invitation.
Carlos showed up a few minutes early. “Let’s wait to order until Chikao gets here.”
He peered around the apartment. “How’re the new digs?”
“Okay. The neighbors are — interesting.”
“Almost all of them are Orthodox Jews. ‘Frum,’ they call it. The Newmans and the Hassans keep inviting me for Shabbat dinner, and I think old Mrs. Friedman wants to set me up with her great-niece.”
“Dude, you and an Orthodox girl?” Carlos started laughing. “I can’t remember the last time you dated a Jewish girl, let alone a religious one.”
Assuming a cool tone, I replied, “Mrs. Friedman assures me that Rachel isn’t at all religious.”
Carlos straightened his face, then asked, “Are you getting much writing done?” He knew I had a deadline coming up on my new novel.
I shifted from one foot to the other. “I got a little sidetracked.”
I got a disapproving glance.
“Look, I’ve been thinking about something from the past, and I'm trying to fictionalize it . . .”
A knock on the door kept me from explaining further. Chikao held out a DVD.
I laughed when I read the title, “Minbo!”
A grinned spread across Chikao’s face. “Gangsters came after Juzo Itami after he made this one, you know.”
A nudge from Carlos. “Let's order Japanese, instead of Indian.”
Despite Carlos’s warnings about publishers and deadlines, I kept writing about Freya.
I saw Freya a few times after graduation. Like me, she'd moved to nearby Washington, DC. She was different then, more confident. Once, Craig flew into DC for the weekend from New York. We all met him for brunch. Freya arrived last, wearing a dress. Silver rings — one shaped like a rose, one like a Celtic knot — glittered on her long fingers, and her hair had been swept up from her face to expose long, dangling earrings.
“I don't think I've ever seen her in a dress,” Jenn said.
I’d brought a new girlfriend with me. “Who’s that?” Romy asked.
I tried to look nonchalant. “That's just Freya.”
She pursed her lips. “Well, redheads shouldn’t wear pink.”
Romy and I broke up on the way home from the restaurant. I was hoping to see Freya soon, but a couple months passed before I bumped into her at a party Jenn and Nicole threw in their rowhouse in Adams Morgan. At the time, hipsters had just recently started moving there from Dupont Circle, the neighbourhood to the south. It seemed like half of them had been invited to the party.
Just as I greeted her, Nicole — who’d had several drinks even before the guests had arrived — grabbed Freya’s hands and dragged her to the center of the gyrating crowd.
In all the years I’d known her, I’d never seen her dance. She’d always seemed more comfortable talking to friends around the periphery than joining the inebriated chaos of the dance floor.
Freya shook her head, but over the music, I heard Nicole insist, “But I’m playing this song just for you!”
Freya closed her eyes for the opening bars of the song. She bounced slightly in time to the music for a moment or two, then started to dance. Her shoulders shrugged, her hips twisting back and forth in their tight jeans. She jammed her hands in the air and the lamplight glittered on her silver rings. A red curl fell loose from her ponytail.
All the time, her eyes remained closed, as if she could only dance if she blocked the rest of us out. I stood stock still in the middle of the room, ignoring the other dancers who kept bumping and jolting me.
When the song was over — it seemed to last forever — Freya's eyes opened. She gave a start when our eyes met, then disappeared into the crowd. I tried to follow, but lost her almost immediately.
An hour later, Freya reappeared. She leaned over to peck Jenn on the cheek. “Pumpkin-time,” she said. “I've got to go.”
“Already?” Nicole shrieked.
Freya shrugged. “Remember, I’ve got a big day tomorrow.”
“You’re not going to wait at the bus stop alone?” Jenn insisted. She exchanged a worried look with Nicole.
“Mick will walk you to the stop,” she offered.
It wasn’t my idea, but I liked it just the same. Freya and I stepped out into the night side by side, almost touching, but not quite.
“I didn’t realize how cold it had gotten,” she said, pulling a windbreaker over her tank top.
All I could notice was how close she was standing to me. We fumbled through small talk about the party, chuckling a little over what a ridiculous drunk Nicole made.
“Here it is,” she said as we reached the bus stop. “You don’t really have to wait.” She looked a little scared, of me, or of being left alone, I wasn’t sure.
“I'll wait,” I said. I opened my mouth again to say more, wanting to compliment her taste in music, wanting to say anything to keep her talking, then deciding that would sound lame.
I’d just about made up my mind to kiss her when the bus pulled up. She gave me a quick squeeze, then dashed away.
She hopped up the steps and flashed her pass at the driver. I returned the wave she gave me from the window as the bus pulled away.
The next morning, I called Nicole to ask for Freya’s number.
“She’s on the way to Turkey.”
“To go backpacking with a friend.”
My heart sank. “When is she coming back?”
A note of sympathy crept into Nicole's voice. “I’m not sure. She said something about meeting more friends in Europe.”
I dropped my hands from my computer keys, thinking about Freya, about how she’d never reappeared, wishing I’d kissed her on the steps of that bus.
The next Saturday, I took the stairwell down for my morning jaunt. I told myself I was getting a little extra exercise, but really I just felt guilty whenever my neighbors caught me exiting the elevator on Shabbos.
When I entered the stairwell, Sender Osherowitz spotted me from above. “Gut shabbes!”
I smiled. “You’ve got three shul-goers with you today.”
Suri said, “This one is Mendy.” The little tyke hid behind her.
Nosson made a long face and added, “Ima and Wolfie are sick.”
I turned to Sender. “I don't think I’ve met your wife yet.”
He shrugged. “Perhaps you’ll join us for supper sometime.”
The kids started to play a game down the stairs, skipping a few at a time. They invited me to play. When I successfully jumped down an entire landing, they looked impressed. “Not too shabby for an old guy.”
They all giggled, and so did I, but then I noticed that Sender looked no older than me, and yet here he was with — what? — four kids?
We’d made it out to the street by then and parted ways. Mendy turned around and stuck his tongue out at me. I waved back.
I opened the file with the story about Freya in it. Finding and replacing her name with “Minerva,” and mine with “Max,” I reimagined our parting. I kissed her this time, and she told me she was leaving. In my revisionist history of our relationship, I drove her to the airport the next morning. She sent me postcards: once a week, at first, then every day, until I could no longer stand it. My fictional self joined Minerva in Çeşme, overlooking the Aegean.
For a night and a day after I finished that first draft, I couldn’t shake the feeling that my muse was nearby, just out of view. Perhaps she lived around the corner, or a block away.
But I paused before sending an email to Nicole to ask for Freya’s number. What if the Freya I’d imagined outshined the Freya of reality? Had she really shared my feelings? Did she still hold a candle for me?
Sighing, I deleted the email and shut my laptop.
At the end of the week, I sent the second draft of my story to Carlos.
“Man, Mick, it’s so, so — sappy,” he complained when he phoned me the next day.
“That bad?” How was I going to justify spending my time on this story if it turned out to be junk?
The tone of Carlos’s voice changed. “Not bad. It’s actually pretty good, just different from your usual stuff. I’m emailing you some comments.” He paused, and then the humor crept back into his tone. “Maybe this one will get optioned for a chick flick.”
I rolled my eyes, not that Carlos could see it over the phone.
“Have you heard from Michelle?” he added.
“Nope. Well, she sent me a text asking if I’d taken the tea kettle a couple weeks back. And another about her orange suitcase.”
A pause. “You okay?”
I thought a bit. “Yeah. I hadn’t realized how much Michelle was dragging me down. Now that she’s gone, I'm relieved.”
After we hung up, I realized I hadn’t told the whole truth. Just because I was glad to be rid of Michelle didn't mean I wasn't lonely. I’d been fascinated with my memory of Freya at least in part because the hope of her presence nearby comforted me.
Out of habit, I looked out the open window. It looked out on a small paved patio behind our building. Mendy and Nosson were riding tricycles in slow circles, a common sight at this hour in the afternoon. However, this time, it wasn’t Sender or even his mother with the boys, but a tall woman. From my perch above, I couldn’t see much of her, other than a denim skirt flaring around her ankles and her large turban, a twisting mass of turquoise and peach scarves. I’d seen a few of the religious women in the street wearing similar ones.
A voice filtered up to me: “Ima, look at me! I’m driving carpool!”
Watching the mysterious Mrs. Osherowitz playing with her kids, I thought again about Michelle. I couldn’t imagine Michelle at the center of such a simple and pleasant scene — not with her kids or anyone else’s. It was better we were over.
“It’s nothing fancy,” Jake Friedman insisted from his position on my doormat. “Just a little get-together to celebrate our new baby. For neighbors and friends and such.”
“But won't he have a bris next week?” I asked, puzzled.
“Of course! You can come for that, too, if you're interested.”
“What did you say it's called again?”
“A shalom zachor. I'll explain it all tonight.”
“Okay. Should I bring anything?” Jake looked exhausted. I couldn’t imagine him being able to host even one person in his condition.
“Nah. The Osherowitzes are taking care of everything.” Saying our final hellos, I closed the door and went back to the corner I'd designated as my office. I’d just received an email from my agent. He’d gotten over his annoyance at my procrastination pretty quickly and said he knew an editor who’d be interested in my story. I was back to work on my novel, feeling rejuvenated by the little break I had taken away from the manuscript.
I ate a sandwich at my desk for dinner, trying not to panic about the looming deadline. A few minutes before nine, I closed my laptop and changed my shirt. Locating a kipa from one of my cousins’ weddings in the bottom of a drawer, I strolled upstairs to the party.
Sender answered my knock and greeted me with a hug. “Mazel tov!”
“Mazel tov?” I replied as he ushered me in.
“It’s a simcha for us all!” I wasn't sure what the simcha was, but around the table, the guests were singing and clapping their hands enthusiastically. Weaving between black-suited men, I found an empty seat, and — surprisingly — Mendy plopped himself in my lap.
Sender handed me a shot of whiskey and said, “L’chaim!” Several other guests echoed his toast, and we drank in unison. Scanning the crowd, I noticed Jake listening attentively to a man with a long white beard. Their immediate neighbors nodded along in agreement with the man’s words.
“Jake said he’d explain this little shindig when I got here,” I told Sender.
“We’re comforting the new baby. He learned the whole Torah while in his mother’s womb, and now he’s lost it.”
“Oh,” I replied, not sure what to make of this explanation. Turning to Mendy, I asked, “Where’s the baby?”
He popped his thumb out of his mouth. “Kitchen.”
“Want to show me?”
Mendy nodded and slid from my lap. I took him by the hand and followed him to find Jake and Deena’s baby.
We reached the kitchen and swung the door open. Several women were crowded around Deena’s chair at the kitchen table. She looked surprisingly good for a woman who had had a baby on Monday.
“Mazel tov!” I said, admiring the infant. “He looks like you, Deena.” He did, in a scrunched-up newborn sort of way.
She laughed, “I think he looks like Jake.” Turning to an older woman standing beside her she said, “Mom, this is Mick Blumenfeld. Mick, this is my mother, Mrs. Schiff.”
I’d learned already that I wasn’t allowed to shake the hands of my female neighbors, but Deena’s mother — who I noticed was wearing short sleeves and no wig or headscarf — grabbed mine enthusiastically. As she pumped my hand up and down, I noticed a willowy figure standing at the counter making tea. Was it my imagination, or did her back stiffen at my name? Noting the gold and emerald-green turban, I guessed this was the mysterious Mrs. Osherowitz. My hypothesis was confirmed when Mendy let go of my hand and rushed over to her.
“And this is my mother-in-law,” Deena was saying. I smiled, and pretended to be listening to what one of other women was saying. But my eyes were on Mrs. Osherowitz's long white hands, dropping teabags into the china teapot full of hot water. The light twinkled on her ring. It was shaped like a rose.
My attention to the tea-maker hadn’t gone unnoticed. “Have you met Fruma Leah yet?” Deena asked.
The woman turned around.
“Well,” Freya Tjolsen said. “The kids told me our new neighbor was called Blumenfeld. I thought it might be you.”
I stared at her, open-mouthed. After a moment, Freya turned to Deena. “I’m going to check on the men and see if they need anything.”
“That would be great.”
Catching my gaze once again, Freya said, “Gut shabbes.” By the time I recovered from the shock, she’d disappeared through the door into the crowd.
“The men are in the dining room. Would you like to join them?” Deena’s mother-in-law suggested. I nodded and mumbled, “Mazel tov,” once more before slipping out.
Emerging from the kitchen, I came face to face with Chikao, dressed in a black suit, white shirt, and tie.
“Hey, Mick,” he said with an eyebrow wriggle. “Do I look frum?” Then, noticing my dismay, he added, “Something wrong, man?”
I spotted Freya standing next to Sender's seat, surrounded by their children. Grabbing Chikao’s sleeve, I led him to a quiet spot in the hallway. “It’s her,” I hissed.
“Fruma Leah Osherowitz. I know her.”
Now the eyebrows shot up. “Know her? What do you mean?”
“I went to college with her. She was called Freya then.”
Chikao nodded. “Sure. That must be her English name. At work, I’ll go by Charles.”
I blurted out, “I didn't even know she was Jewish!”
“Well, I'm pretty sure she’s Jewish now.”
I peeked around the corner. She was sitting on the arm of Sender’s chair, listening to someone telling a story at the table.
Eyes narrowing, Chikao asked, “Just how well did you know Fruma Leah?”
When I got home, I phoned Carlos. “You wouldn’t believe what happened! Freya lives in my building.”
In the pause that followed, I heard music, voices — a bar, maybe, or a restaurant. “Mick, slow down. Who's Freya?”
I realized I had never told Carlos the whole story. “Remember Minerva?”
“You mean, in your story?”
“Well, that was Freya. Only I made up the ending. And I changed a bunch of other details.”
“Oooh. So you saw this Freya?” I could hear Carlos stepping out of the noisy room.
“Yeah. But she calls herself Fruma Leah now. And she’s married, with kids.”
“A lot can happen in fifteen years, Mick. You could’ve been married and had a few kids by now, too, if you’d applied yourself.”
“You sound like my mother.”
“Maybe she’s right.”
I wasn’t ready to admit it out loud, but I’d been thinking about that a lot lately. “What about you?”
“I tried the whole wife-and-kid thing. It didn’t work out, but I tried. And I still see Lucas three days a week.”
Sighing, I sat down on my couch. “Well, thanks, Carlos.”
The next morning, rain woke me as it pelted my window. I stayed home until well after nine, afraid of bumping into Sender and the kids on their way to synagogue if I left any earlier. Had Freya said anything to her husband? If so, how would he act?
As I got in my car, driving past all my Orthodox neighbors trudging through the downpour on foot, past all the shuttered stores, I thought: What had Freya and I shared, anyway? We’d never dated. We’d never even kissed. Any relationship we had was a figment of my imagination. She didn’t know about the story I’d written, and she didn’t have to. What was the likelihood of her reading it? And I could always argue that it was fiction.
I spent the next few days both hoping for and dreading another encounter with Freya. The parking garage, hallways, and stairwell assumed an air of mystery. I thought, What is she doing now? Is she upstairs with Sender and the kids? Is she wondering what I'm doing down here?
Anticipating the next time our paths would cross, I prepared myself. I couldn’t act too twitchy, or over-friendly, didn’t want to make a fool of myself. Even though I already knew I was making a fool of myself. I was no Count Vronsky or Rodolphe Boulanger.
Eventually I bumped into Freya in the laundry room, explaining to Mendy that she had to wash his teddy bear.
“You slept with him while you were sick, sweetie,” she reasoned. “He’s got boogies all over him. Let’s give Dovi a bath so all the germs will go bye-bye.”
Mendy popped his thumb out of his mouth long enough to say, “No.”
I plopped my laundry basket down on the floor. Freya looked up. “Hi.”
“Hello.” Turning towards Mendy, I said, “I think Dovi will feel much better if he gets a bath.”
An eyebrow arched on his tiny face.
“Don’t you feel better when you take a warm bath?” I added.
Mendy clutched his bear tighter.
Freya mumbled, “Why didn’t I just wash it when he was asleep?” She looked tired. I noticed faint laugh lines, a red curl escaping the knit beret on her head. Her paisley skirt swirled around her feet.
I started loading a washing machine, trying to ignore the hammering in my chest. Meanwhile, the negotiations continued.
“Okay, Mendy, let’s cut us a deal.”
“You let me wash Dovi, and I make you a smoothie.”
“Here.” Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Mendy hand over his bear. Freya sighed and popped the toy into the machine.
“I’m resorting to bribery,” she said, slamming the lid down.
“I think all mothers resort to bribery,” I replied. “Right now, my mother is trying to lure me home for Passover with a promise to serve duck à l’orange and flourless chocolate cake for seder. From a caterer, of course. Mom’s not known for her cooking.”
Freya snorted. The sound brought me back to dorm rooms and coffee houses.
“Freya . . .”
“Okay, Fruma Leah, I didn't even know you were Jewish.”
“Why would you? It’s not like I was practicing Judaism back then. My mother was a Goldberg before she married my father.”
“So . . . ?”
“When I left for Turkey, I expected to hit Greece, maybe Italy before heading back to the States. But my friend and I bumped into a bunch of Israelis on the beach, and they persuaded us to go to Israel. One thing led to another, and I found myself at one of the women’s seminaries. I stayed for a year and a half.”
“Huh.” I didn’t know what to say after that.
Mendy tugged on his mother’s skirt. “Smoothie, Ima.”
Fruma Leah took him by the hand. “Well, see you around.”
“Yeah,” I said. “See you around.”
When Mrs. Newman begged me to take the rest of her famous babka off her hands, I could not say no. Following her upstairs — she said she needed the exercise — I recognized her yoga-pants-under-skirt plus bandana-on-head as the uniform of a religious woman on a health kick.
“I’ll be just a minute,” Mrs. Newman said, stepping inside. I’d recently learned that Jewish law forbade unrelated men and women to be alone together, so I didn’t follow. When she returned, I accepted the cake with a smile.
“You can afford it more than me.”
Mrs. Newman shut the door. Considering the plate of babka balanced in my hands, I decided to take the elevator down. As I turned the corner, I spotted Fruma Leah, juggling baby Woolfie, the stroller, and groceries in the hallway. Sender, briefcase in hand, joined her a minute later. Curious to see what would happen, I hung back.
“Need some help with that?” Sender asked with a broad grin.
Fruma Leah winked. “Unless I suddenly grow another hand, I think so.”
Deftly, Sender slipped a hand into the pocket of her corduroy skirt and extracted the key. Fruma Leah rewarded him with a flirtatious smile as she took it from his hand.
Afraid of attracting their notice, I decided to wait until the Osherowitzes had entered their apartment before continuing to the elevator.
Turning around, I discovered Chikao behind me, clutching his laundry basket. My heart raced as I looked again at the Osherowitz apartment . . . but quickly relaxed. They’d already shut the door.
“Want some babka?” I asked, gesturing toward the plate with my chin.
I nodded. “I think she’s on a diet.”
Chikao laughed. “She’ll be off it again in a few weeks.” He used his elbow to push the down button.
He dropped his clothes off in his apartment, then joined me for babka.
“Want a coffee with it? I just bought a fancy new espresso machine. You can be my guinea pig.”
“Sure.” Chikao settled into a spot at my dinette table. I started the coffee while he munched the corners of his slice of cake.
Without warning, he asked, “So what’s with you and Fruma Leah?”
“Nothing? What was that business at the Friedmans’?”
“I told you . . . I was just surprised to find her there.”
“And that explains why I caught you spying on her and Sender in the hallway?”
Flinging open the fridge, I grabbed the milk and poured some into a little steel pitcher. “I wasn’t spying.” I stuck the pitcher under the wand at the side of my espresso machine. The noise gave me a good excuse to delay further comment for a minute or two. “I was trying not to intrude on a private moment.”
“Right.” He accepted the cup of coffee I brought him with two hands, then added, “She’s a very beautiful woman.”
What was I supposed to say to that? “She’s another man’s wife.”
Chikao eyed me over the cup. “I read one of your books.”
“Really?” None of my neighbors had ever said anything about my novels before. I assumed they hadn’t read them. “Which one?”
“Castles in the Sand.”
I smiled. “It got optioned by a studio, you know. One day, they might make a movie.”
Chikao put down his coffee, looked me directly in the eye. “Just remember: life is not a book. It’s not a movie, Mick. Don’t expect a romantic ending.”
We finished our coffee and Mrs. Newman’s cake in silence. Chikao thanked me and left.
As promised, my mother provided duck à l'orange and flourless cake for Passover seder. Roasted potatoes and grilled asparagus, too, and pretty young women on both my right and my left. I tried to make conversation, but their naïve chatter made me feel old, and I wanted to talk to someone closer to my age. I found myself schmoozing with my cousin in the kitchen until the afikomen was found and my father dragged us back to the table.
When I returned to L.A., the Osherowitzes had announced they would be moving.
“About time,” Jake said. “Four kids in a two-bedroom has got to be a tight fit.”
I didn’t see Fruma Leah again before their move, except once. I watched her from above, with the children pedaling around her, weaving around and around.