Photo: Thelma Phillips
By Steven Mayoff
The waitress has dark rings under her eyes, barely concealed by flaking make-up. Her mouth is a frozen smiling slash of orange-red as she holds out a full pot of coffee. You try to ignore the way Sandy’s eyes linger on the pushed-up, freckled cleavage wobbling above the strained button of her crisp blouse. The waft of hairspray from her jet-black updo stings your nostrils and makes your eyes tear slightly. Just to be safe you wait until she refills the cups and returns behind the counter before lighting your cigarette.
You’re both sitting in a booth by the window, you and your father. You’ve recently begun to think of him by his first name, Sandy, although you still address him as Dad. This started at some point during the meetings at the Oasis Center. Whenever sharing with the others, you found yourself sometimes referring to your father by his first name. Maybe it made talking about your relationship with him easier. Maybe it helped you trust in the confidentiality of the meetings. The coffee shop is near the hotel where Sandy is staying, a couple of blocks from the north end of the strip. He landed at McCarran Airport the night before and rented a car. You turned down his offer to pick you up at the Oasis Center, not wanting him to see the seedy area it’s in. Instead you walked forty-five minutes to meet him here.
“How are things with Pearl?” This is the woman Sandy married a few years after your mother’s death. Pearl had been a waitress in Sandy’s Delicatessen. A money loser for years, Pearl persuaded Sandy to sell the place not long after the wedding. Technically Pearl is your stepmother, a nice enough person but you could never relate to her, let alone bring yourself to call her Mom, as she had once suggested. Indeed, you were deeply offended, but only smiled and said nothing. As far as you’re concerned, she’s just the woman who keeps Sandy from being alone.
He shrugs. “I could complain, but I leave that to her. Things are the way they are. In Montreal it was the winters and the French. In Florida it’s the heat and the Cubans.”
Sandy bought a townhouse in a retirement village near Fort Lauderdale two years ago. He is going on seventy-three and already has had two by-pass operations. The very tip of his nose is white where the doctor scraped away the cancer. You watch him empty a plastic creamer into his coffee and feel a sudden urge to take care of the old man. The intensity makes you clench your jaw until the ache forces you to let it go slack.
“She sends her love, you know, Pearl. She’s worried about you. Everybody’s been worried, Marty.”
You nod. “I don’t know what to tell you, Dad. I fucked up.”
“So you think I never fucked up? That’s not the point. It’s just that you let it get so bad. None of us knew anything. Except Roz I guess. She must have known something was wrong.”
“Don’t bring Roz into this. It’s been hardest on her.”
“That’s what I can’t get my head around. She didn’t think to call me or Rachel sooner? She had to wait until it was too late?”
“It’s not that simple! Don’t blame Roz. I’m to blame, Dad.”
You notice others turning toward your raised voice and you sip some coffee. You look out at the cars cruising along Paradise Road. Across the street is a well-dressed woman laden with shopping bags from various stores, trying to hail a cab. She wears a bright kerchief over her hair and has expensive-looking sunglasses. Both you and Sandy are looking at her. You know both of you can’t help thinking of your mother and her manic shopping sprees.
“Anyway,” Sandy says. “That’s all behind us now. Here you are six months in, and they’re going to give you… what is it again?”
“It’s a six-month coin. For staying sober. They have coins for different lengths of time. The six-month one is blue. It looks like a gambling chip. They used to call them sobriety chips.”
“I couldn’t be prouder, Marty.” Sandy puts his hand over yours. “It’s a testament to how you’re turning your life around.”
“It means everything to me that you came all the way to Vegas for the ceremony.”
You don’t say anything, but you’re relieved he came alone. It’s not a secret that Pearl wouldn’t come because she’s ashamed. No one in her family has ever had this kind of problem.
“So how’s the job?” Sandy asks.
“Good. It’s a chemical company. Mostly physical work. Moving boxes and metal drums. It’s different, a change. I’ve even lost a couple of pounds.”
“You don’t have to make it your life’s work. Just until you’re on your feet again. You pay something at the place your staying? Some kind of rent?”
“I give them ten bucks out of every check and contribute for food in the lunchroom. I opened a savings account. Hopefully I can save a little money.”
“What about going back to New Jersey?”
“I don’t know, Dad, I’m just getting started here.”
“Is Roz coming? For the ceremony.”
“She can’t take the time off work. And Dani is busy with school in Montreal. Rachel called me from England. She talked about flying in, but… Anyway, you’re here. It means everything to me.”
The woman with the shopping bags is gone. Instead there is a bench with an advertisement for a life insurance company with a picture of two open hands side by side. Hands that are meant to be offering something. Love. Security. They could be the Hands of God. Then again, they might only be showing that they aren’t holding anything. Open but empty, offering nothing. Spotless white hands, palms barely creased, like a child’s. Hands that have never done any hard labour, that have never touched or been touched by life.
“I don’t know what to tell you, Dad. For the first time I feel like I’m in control of my life. For so many years I felt like I was a failure.”
“Marty, how can you say that…”
“It was always so easy to please you. Put on a suit. Work in an office. I feel like everything I did was for other people. You, Mom, Roz. Because it was expected of me, because I couldn’t let anyone down. Rachel was the only one I didn’t need to impress. We were so close as kids. You know she’s been calling me from England every couple of weeks. Every fortnight, as she says.” You do a slightly exaggerated British accent in a high voice that makes Sandy smile. “We talk more now than we have in years.”
The waitress hovers with her coffee pot poised for refills. Sandy nods at her. The two of you immediately look at your cups, a hush descending over the table. Sandy watches her pour and you can’t help wondering if this was how the courtship between him and Pearl began. You glance out the window as she tops his cup. You can still smell her hairspray and you rub your thumb against the ridges of the metal wheel of your disposable lighter.
“Can I get you anything else?”
“That’ll be all, dear. Thank you, says Sandy. His parting glance at her ample behind is mechanical and wistful.” He quickly returns his attention to you. “Are you saying that you felt pressured? That I put pressure on you?”
You light a cigarette. “No, Dad. I’m just saying that I wanted to please you. That I was too busy thinking of… I don’t know. I thought I knew what I wanted out of life, what everyone’s supposed to want.”
“So when did you realize you weren’t happy?”
“I don’t know. It’s hard to say. When did you realize you weren’t happy?”
“Me?” Sandy rises defensively in his seat then takes a moment to study the pink and white squiggly pattern on the Formica tabletop. “It hasn’t been an easy life. You get by the best you can. What else can you do?”
You shake your head and sugar your coffee without bothering to measure it out with a spoon.
“Tell me, Marty, if you don’t mind my asking… what happened that day?”
Sandy bites the knuckle of his thumb, a familiar sign of nervousness. “The day at Teller’s. You know, the whole thing with the money.”
You should have known the question was coming at some point. In fact, you’d been waiting for it. Still, there’s an unexpected jab in the centre of your chest. You light another cigarette off the one you just finished and lean all your weight on both elbows balanced at the edge of the table. You know this story. You’ve told it a couple of times at meetings. Maybe it was all in preparation for this moment when you would have to tell it to your father.
“Almost a year after I started working at Teller’s, they – I mean Mr. Adilman – promoted me to Assistant Manager. I thought things were going okay, but I wasn’t happy.”
“What was wrong?” Sandy’s eyes are moist with confusion and concern, making that extra effort to see something he had most likely missed for years.
“I don’t know. It was just something that kept building inside me, ever since I was downsized from Fine Brothers. Hard to go from being a Vice President of Sales to… I should have been happy enough that I was making an honest living, but all I could think about was how low I’d sunk to having to sell suits in a shop like a kid out of school.”
A strange paternal smile crosses Sandy’s face. “You mean like in Miracle Mart? You remember those days, so long ago?”
Despite yourself, you’re grinning too. “I was sixteen then, Dad. Here I was fifty, and every day I’d be walking into that place knowing I was merely getting by, facing the fact that there was no future for me there.”
“Whaddya mean?” Sandy seems almost offended. “You’d just been promoted to assistant manager. Didn’t that tell you there was a future there for you?”
You angrily tap your cigarette ash onto the rim of the glass ashtray, causing sparks to fly into the air. “No, Dad, that’s not how I felt. My future was long behind me. All I had to look forward to was barely eking out a living until it was time to retire or die.”
Just like you’ve been doing all these years. You can’t bring yourself to say it out loud. The same way you can’t bring yourself to call him by his first name.
“I’d begun to think a lot about the years I worked for Fine Brothers. All the travelling I did, all the cities I visited. This place – Las Vegas – it was always my favourite by far. Fabulous casinos, free drinks, top entertainment, beautiful women. I kept thinking of all those flickering neon signs turning night into day. Walking down the strip past Circus Circus, Bally’s, the Riviera, the MGM Grand. So many possibilities in a town like this. A chance to really turn my life around once and for all.”
“So tell me.” Sandy holds his hand over his coffee cup, like he’s signalling that he doesn’t want any more even though the waitress is nowhere in sight. “Were you drinking this whole time you were thinking of Vegas?”
You take a quick gulp of coffee, somehow compensating for your father’s gesture. “I’m not gonna lie to you. I was drinking more during that time. But it wasn’t that, Dad. I wasn’t drunk when I took the money. Far from it. At the time I felt like I had never been thinking more clearly in my whole life. You understand?”
“I don’t know how to explain it. Sometimes I’m not really aware when it’s starting. All I know is that I’m feeling good, everything’s feeling good. Thinking about Vegas made me feel good and I’d been thinking about it for about a week or so. Maybe more.”
“You know, feeling positive. Like it’s all starting to fall into place.”
Sandy nods silently, sombrely. You turn toward the window. The procession of traffic passes by in seeming slow motion behind the dreamy haze of sun-streaked glass.
“It was a Wednesday evening. That’s when Mr. Adilman always gave me the canvas bag containing the week’s deposits. By sheer chance I’d brought an old flight bag to work to carry some paperwork home. I felt embarrassed putting the paperwork into such a ratty old bag. Mr. Adilman didn’t say anything about it, but, I don’t know, I just felt like I had to explain that normally I would have brought my calfskin attaché case, but since I’d left Fine Brothers Dani liked to use it for school.”
“You always tried to take good care of your things.” Sandy brushes a bit of cigarette ash off the front of his shirt. “You were very proud that way.”
“That’s not the point.” You slap your hand down on the table and regret it immediately. “As soon as I said it, I was even more embarrassed by the explanation, it was so lame, and I tried to recover by saying how I’d used the flight bag for years while travelling for Fine Brothers and that was why the vinyl was so cracked. But that didn’t sound right either and I was going to say more. Mr. Adilman kept trying to get me out the door so he could close up. But I had a sudden urge to tell him all about my days with Fine Brothers, all my travels, all the celebrities I had met, how incredible my life had been.”
You press a fist against your mouth and begin to breathe through your nose. Sandy reaches his hand part way across the table, stopping short of touching your arm.
You take pains to slow down your speech, measuring your words. “Then I understood the best thing to do was to say nothing. Once I was outside it suddenly all seemed to make sense. The flight bag, the money, Las Vegas. It was all falling effortlessly into place. I remember going into a bar and heading straight for the bathroom. In one of the cubicles I took all the money out of the canvas bag and put it into the flight bag. I didn’t even stay to have a drink, can you believe that? Just walked straight out of the bar and all the way to Port Authority. I had a full flask in my jacket pocket and I was saving it for the bus ride. It was a beautiful night. And I didn’t feel like I was stealing the money at all, just borrowing it until I got ahead. I always had every intention of paying it back right down to the last penny.”
Sandy quickly puts a cigarette in his mouth, but holds off lighting it. The waitress
calls to you and Sandy from behind the counter and Sandy signals for the check. There is a brief haggle over who will pay. Sandy takes care of the check and leaves the change as a tip. You clap your father on the shoulder and walk him back to his hotel. Sandy insists on driving you back to the Oasis Center, just so you’d both have a little more time together.
“Why here, Marty? Not that it matters. As long as you’re getting help, it doesn’t
matter where you’re doing it. But why Vegas?”
They were getting close to the Oasis Center now. The buildings were dingier,
more rundown. The other side of the shiny chip.
“I don’t know why.” You point out where to park. “For some reason I guess it just
Sandy looks around unsmilingly at the dubious surroundings.
“It’s not forever, Dad.” You embrace him before opening the car door.
“Wherever you go, Marty, life is a matter of sink or swim.”
You step out of the car, close the door and duck your head down into the window.
“Then I guess it’s a good thing I’m in the desert.”
The ceremony takes place on a Thursday evening in the same room as the A.A. meetings: the Oasis Center’s lunchroom. Chairs are set up as if for a meeting, including a table at the back with two coffee urns, milk, sweeteners, Styrofoam cups, and an array of donuts. The only other difference from the usual meeting set-up is that outsiders are welcome. For you, this includes Sandy, Rabbi Belkin from the New Sinai Temple, where you have been going every Saturday for the past five months, and the rabbi’s wife, Mira, who has been teaching you Hebrew on Sunday mornings at the temple. Sandy has heard you were studying Hebrew, probably from Roz or maybe from Rachel, with the goal of having a bar mitzvah. Before everyone takes their seats, Sandy is introduced to Rabbi Belkin and Mira.
“Is he a good student?” Sandy asks Mira.
“He works very hard at it,” she replies. “I used to be a teacher back in Tel Aviv. Marty makes me feel good about teaching again.”
When everyone is getting seated, Sandy leans into your ear. “You’re really serious about having a bar mitzvah?”
“Some days I can’t think of anything else.” The moment those words leave your mouth you hear them reverberate in the air, like the echo of some unknown voice ricocheting inside a cavern.
Sandy squeezes your hand. “It’s good to have a goal. You were always goal-oriented. This is the Marty I remember.”
Once everyone is settled in, Jonah Whelan, director of the Oasis Center, stands at the front of the room. A heavy set African-American, dressed in a yellow tee shirt and blue jeans, he takes two more drags on his cigarette and stubs it out in a nearby ashtray. You whisper to Sandy how supportive Jonah has been to you, almost like a mentor. Sandy nods, his expression sombre and contemplative, and you almost regret telling him. The room settles down and Jonah thanks everyone for coming. He explains the importance in marking milestones in recovery, how six days can be as crucial as six months or six years, how lonely it can feel, and the importance of having a support system.
“First time I met Martin he was at a low point in his life. Most everyone in this room has been at that point. That’s what brought us all here. A lot of people come and go through this place. My job isn’t to judge them, just to accept that they’re able to get themselves here to this place. A place where they want to help themselves. It was clear to me that Martin isn’t the kind of person to give up on himself. The progress he’s made in the past six months has been an inspiration to many of us here. So now I’ll ask you to come up here, Martin.”
“Why does he call you Martin?” Sandy whispers. “We all call you Marty.”
“It’s just his way, I guess. I don’t mind it.” There’s something like a rebuke in the way you say this, and you wonder if Sandy notices. Then you stand and make your way to the front of the room. There is subdued applause as you pass those seated, faces you see every day, some who have been here before you showed up and others who have recently arrived. You’ve made your way to the front of this room countless times, or so it feels, and yet there is something skittish and hesitant inside you, as if this is your first time. By the time you find yourself standing next to Jonah, you feel all eyes pointed toward, yet somehow looking past, you.
Jonah says a few words and hands you the blue coin. You turn it over in your fingers. It feels almost weightless. There is an engraving around the edge of the whole coin that says ONE DAY AT A TIME and in the middle is the inscription 6 MONTHS. You hold the coin up for all to see. There is a brief surge of applause. You notice that Mira is one of the last to stop clapping. Rabbi Belkin glances at her and she lets her hands rest on her lap. She looks at him, smiles faintly and crosses her arms.
You look forward to the Sundays when you have your Hebrew lessons with her in the conference room at the New Sinai Temple. You like the privacy of that room and being surrounded by the photographs hanging on the walls, all of them taken by Mira. They are “meditations” (her word) of the surrounding desert, the mountainous periphery of the Mojave just outside Las Vegas. She drives out there once a week to take pictures and to be alone with herself. That’s why it surprised you when she invited you to come with her after your lesson last Sunday. Your protest was polite, something about impinging too much on her free time as it is, since she is already giving you lessons and charging less than she should because that’s all you can afford. She expressed some concern that your time was mainly spent at the chemical factory, the Oasis Center and the New Sinai Temple. “Everyone needs a change of scenery now and then,” she said.
The drive in her Hatchback felt strange, as if you were there against your will. At first you felt obligated to try to keep up some kind of conversation, but soon you both fell into a natural silence. You began to relax. Miles of flat scrub brush instilled a sense that nothing was required of you. After almost an hour Mira stopped the car and got her camera from the back seat. Walking along a trail, she would stop now and then to snap pictures. Sometimes she let you look through the lens, but mostly you followed in dutiful silence. At times you felt as if she had forgotten you were there altogether. This was her alone time, you remembered. She hadn’t invited you to accompany her. You were there to be alone as well. Alone, but not lonely. The two of you together, but each alone.
“Congratulations,” Rabbi Belkin is saying and pumping your hand. “I hope in some way coming to temple is helping you with your recovery.”
“Yes,” you say, looking around to see Mira talking to Jonah Whelan. “Part of recovery, as you know, is giving yourself over to a higher power.”
“I don’t really know that much about AA,” he says. “I’ve never been to a ceremony like this. It feels very much like a rite of passage, not unlike a bar mitzvah.”
Rabbi Belkin asks to see the blue coin and you hand it over to him. “It looks like a poker chip,” he says. “Not that it would do you any good in a casino.”
He passes it to Sandy, who nods proudly and says something about blue chip stocks and how you are your own best investment. Soon the blue coin is being passed around to others who want to see it. You imagine it is like a good luck piece that everyone wants to touch, hoping to rub off a bit of that mojo for themselves, which makes you slightly anxious. Somebody suggests attaching it to a chain and wearing it. You say that you will give it some thought, but in your mind the idea repulses you, reminding you of the Star of David your mother gave you when you were thirteen, the one that was supposed to be compensation for not having a bar mitzvah. She said it had belonged to a woman she worked for when she was a girl. You actually met this woman once, quite by happenstance, when you visited your mother at the sanatorium where she received shock treatments for her manic-depression. The woman was a cleaner in the sanatorium. You showed her the Star of David, which you wore on a chain, and she confirmed that it was the same one she gave your mother. The Star of David got lost years ago, when you and Roz moved from Montreal to New Jersey after you’d been transferred to the Fine Brothers’ New York office.
People have clustered naturally into small groups and you can’t help but be reminded of the desert vegetation you saw last Sunday on your road trip with Mira, the scattered scrub brush and spiky plants that seem to thrive on secret reserves of nourishment. Jonah Whelan takes you aside to talk about how the sixth month of sobriety can sneak up on a person, make them feel like they’re home free somehow. He knows you’ve been checking the newspapers for apartments. He doesn’t want to discourage you from getting a place, only to warn you that it’s easy to feel you can venture out on your own and forget the support system you’ve built over the past months. The blue coin makes its way back to Jonah and he hands it to you once more. You take it, only half-listening to what he has been saying. From the corner of your eye you see that Mira is talking with someone else now. You feel a need to take her aside, somewhere private, although you don’t know what you would say to her. In fact, you realize there is nothing you want to say to her. You want to say nothing to her. You want to take her off some place where you could both be silent together.
Sandy is already sitting in a booth when you arrive at the coffee shop. He has a few hours to kill before his flight back to Fort Lauderdale. It is Sunday and you meet him directly after your Hebrew lesson at the New Sinai Temple. You are a bit late because the bus was behind schedule.
“I could have come and got you with the car.”
“Doesn’t matter,” you say.
Sandy is already sipping his coffee. The waitress brings him a club sandwich with a side order of French fries and coleslaw. She takes your order for a coffee. Sandy asks if you want something to eat but you say you aren’t hungry.
“Everything all right?”
You light a cigarette. He asks how the Hebrew lesson went, but you change the subject by thanking him again for coming with you to look at an apartment yesterday. You’d seen the ad for it on the corkboard at work on Friday and called during your lunch hour for an appointment. That evening you and Sandy went out for supper at one of the all-you-can-eat buffets on the strip. When you mentioned you were going to see the apartment after synagogue on Saturday, Sandy surprised you by suggesting he go to shul with you and then come along to have a look at the apartment.
“If you don’t mind your old man tagging along,” he’d added. “After all, isn’t that why I came, to spend time with my son?”
He bites into his club sandwich and chews carefully, nodding his approval. You think of all the years he put into a failing delicatessen, wanting nothing more than to be his own boss, and you try to reconcile this with the momentary pleasure he takes from enjoying something as simple as a well-made sandwich. You think of how often you took him for granted, how little it took to please him. Just pretend you were happy. Let him think you were living the life he’d wished he could live.
You mention that Rachel called this morning. Whenever she calls, usually twice a month, it’s always on a Sunday so she can take advantage of the lower long-distance rate in England. You try to keep it short, no longer than half an hour, just to hear her voice and reassure her you are doing well. But the call this morning went on for almost an hour.
“For some reason, I’m not really sure why, we got to talking about that woman Mom knew. The one she used to work for when she was a teenager.”
Sandy swallows and sighs. “A bit meshuggah, that one. A sad case. You remember she used to come around the house on Bloomfield?”
“We both remembered her being at Mom’s funeral. We wondered whatever happened to her.”
Sandy eats a forkful of coleslaw and shrugs. “She was like a religious fanatic. Converted to being Jewish, then went back to being Catholic, like she couldn't make up her mind. I never liked her. She tried to have you kids baptized. Took you into a church without telling us.”
It’s a story you’ve been told many times, part of the family lore, although you have no memory of it. You and Rachel were five or six. She vaguely remembers having water put on her forehead and starting to cry. Claims that’s why she has an aversion to religion of any kind. Having travelled through much of Europe, she’s often visited churches to appreciate the architecture and art, but she always feels a weird chill whenever she first steps inside. You felt something similar when you first started attending the New Sinai Temple.
“I heard somewhere she got married again, not long after the funeral,” Sandy says. “To some religious nut. They ran an orphanage. He was a shikker, ended up drinking himself to death. Her first husband was a faigele. Boy, could she pick ‘em.”
Having Sandy sit next to you yesterday in shul gave you a different kind of chill. Not a chill exactly, more like a sense of nostalgia for a time that never was. Religion had never been part of your upbringing, so for the two of you to be sitting in this house of worship felt incongruous, to say the least. You understood he was there to get a sense of the new life you’d been living. He actually said afterward that he wanted to see if you were getting something you’d missed as a kid, something he should have provided for you. Rabbi Belkin’s sermon that morning was about the role Judaism plays in everyday life outside of the synagogue. When he mentioned having recently attended an A.A. ceremony for someone who had achieved six months of sobriety, he likened it to a bridge between the secular self and spiritual growth. Although he didn’t mention you by name, you could sense him scanning the room in search of you. When his eyes found you, you instinctively lowered your head. Up in the first row, the back of Mira’s head seemed inscrutable, as if she was willing herself not to turn around to look at you. To make matters worse, at the moment Rabbi Belkin mentioned the ceremony, Sandy touched your arm, a gesture of pride that only deepened your embarrassment. To you it was a moment of irony, this unintentional bonding between father and son, the two of you like tourists slumming in the land of faith and servility. The one difference was that Sandy would be flying off the next day, never to return, while you were left trying to figure out how you were ever going to show your face here again. After the service, not wanting to see either Rabbi Belkin or Mira, you hurried Sandy out of the shul with the excuse that you didn’t want to be late to see the apartment.
You’ve been staring into your coffee cup and look up to see Sandy scrutinizing you. Again, he asks how the Hebrew lesson went. All you can offer is that it’s a difficult language to learn. You find it hard to study at the Oasis Center with the people and the noise; in fact, you find it hard to relax there altogether. That’s one of the things you liked about the apartment, how quiet it was. The moment you entered it, you felt that this was a place where you could concentrate, where you could push ahead with your new life. You made no mention to Mrs. Grady, the landlady, that you were at the Oasis Centre. You said you were staying with friends for the time being. She thought it charming that you had your father with you.
“The reality, Dad, is that I’m never really ever going to use Hebrew.” Saying this out loud is an unexpected relief. Something inside you, some unnamed pressure, deflates, only to be replaced by a sense of well-being that makes you sit up straighter in your chair.
You were like a team almost, you and Sandy, the way he wandered through the rooms – turning on the taps, looking into cupboards and closets, counting the electrical outlets – while you chatted up Mrs. Grady. You painted a rosy picture of Sandy visiting you because you hadn’t seen each other very much over the years. This was a visit where the two of you were getting reacquainted. You waxed lyrical about your previous visits to Las Vegas when you were a travelling salesman, how you were downsized and how you’re trying to restart your life. No mention of Roz or Dani, no mention of stolen money, blackouts, detox, A.A. meetings, a six-month sobriety coin.
Sandy frowns and pushes his plate away. There is still half of an uneaten club sandwich. He offers it to you and you realize you’re hungry after all. There are a few leftover French fries and you eat a couple, then take a bite of the sandwich.
“But what about the bar mitzvah? You’ll need Hebrew for that.”
“Sure,” you say through a mouthful of food, taking a moment to appreciate the balance of fresh tomato and crisp lettuce against the saltiness of the bacon and turkey, and how there’s just the right amount of mayonnaise, before you swallow. “It’s not that I’m giving up on that. But I feel the Hebrew lessons helped get me to this point, the six months. Maybe I need to take a break so I can move to the next phase.”
“I don’t understand what you mean, Marty.”
“I’m pretty sure she’ll rent the place to me, but I need the first and last months’ rent. I don’t have it yet. It will probably mean I have to put in some overtime. I asked her to give me a week, but I don’t know how long she’ll wait. So I’ll have to put the Hebrew lessons on hold for the moment. Mira doesn’t charge a lot, but I still can’t afford the lessons if I want the apartment.”
What you’re not telling Sandy is that you didn’t have a lesson today, although you did spend the morning with Mira in the conference room at the New Sinai Temple. She had every intention of teaching you, but early on it was clear that your mind was not on the lesson. After some prodding on her part, you tried to explain your discomfort in shul the day before when Rabbi Belkin mentioned the ceremony. He didn’t mention you by name, so it wasn’t like he betrayed a confidence, but you did feel singled out. It seemed you were being made an example of something that you now had to live up to. All your life you felt you had to please people and live up to the promise they felt was in you. At the ceremony at the Oasis Center you’d had the suspicion that it was all happening again, and the sermon had only served to reinforce that feeling. The only time when you didn’t feel that uneasiness, the onus of expectation that always seems to be on your shoulder, was when you went with her to the desert. It was a privacy she cherished, but could still share. It was like an invitation, an opening to find that part of yourself and you admitted to feeling an unspoken connection to her that you couldn’t describe. It was a feeling that, ironically, made the Hebrew lessons suddenly seem tedious and restrictive.
Sandy signals to the waitress and asks if he can borrow a pen. She brings one over, along with the bill. Then he reaches inside his jacket and takes out a cheque book.
“How much is the first and last?”
“No, Dad. Thanks for the offer, but I can’t take money from you.”
“Why not? I want to help. She’ll probably rent the place to someone else before you can come up with the money.”
You tell him the amount and he writes it out, then rips the cheque from the book. You promise to pay him back as you pocket the cheque. Sandy smiles and you cannot help but interpret this unspoken moment between you. The reassurance he wants, and that you want to give him, that you will not cash the cheque and immediately go on a bender. You want to feel guilty for taking the money, but all you can feel is elation. You excuse yourself and go to the payphone near the washroom to call Mrs. Grady and tell her that you will drop by to give her a cheque. If you leave now, Sandy will be able to give you a ride there and make it to McCarran on time to catch his flight.
You weren’t sure how Mira would react to everything you told her. You braced yourself for hurt feelings or possibly tears. What you didn’t expect was for her to confess that Rabbi Belkin had become angry when he discovered the two of you had driven out to the desert and that he’d made her promise not to take you again. He didn’t go so far as to forbid her from continuing the Hebrew lessons. It’s not that he doesn’t trust his wife. He knows things will be fine as long as you both stay in the confines of the New Sinai Temple. But he also knows what driving out to the desert means to her, how it’s a coping mechanism because she doesn’t like living in Las Vegas. He doesn’t want to deny her those moments of privacy. He’d even insisted on hanging her photos in the New Sinai conference room. She was reluctant to do that at first, but relented so as not to disappoint him. She didn’t say that he had mentioned the ceremony in his sermon as a way of cautioning you, to remind you of your place in the congregation, but it became clear to you that you could never again set foot in the New Sinai Temple. A period of silence followed, different from the silence you’d shared in the desert, where you were both together but each alone. In this particular silence you could hear each other’s thoughts: a jumbled ebbing and flowing of regret and liberation.
You and Sandy are at the car when he realizes he forgot to give the pen back to the waitress. You return it to the coffee shop. Moments later you get in the car.
“She must have been in the kitchen,” you say. “I just left it on our table.”
On the way to the apartment, Sandy tells you not to worry about paying him back, that you need to take your time and get settled, while you think of the waitress and the smell of her hairspray. There was a trace of it in the air when you were in the coffee shop. You envision her finding her pen, then clearing off the table. You try to imagine what she might think when she scoops the change that Sandy left as a tip, and finds what looks, at first glance, like a blue casino chip.