Jendi Reiter
Runner-up

The House of Correction

“I am going to this wedding,” Zebatinsky declared to Carla. His middling daughter. Middle. But the switched word lodged in his brain, as happened more and more these days, branching out tendrils of other words, a not unpleasant process until he was obliged to backtrack its meanderings to the conversation he’d left hanging. Carla in the muddle, middle-born between fiery David, now a banker in Hong Kong, and beautiful Natalie, who’d played piano in Carnegie Hall, found a husband, and died. Carla taught high school physics and nutrition at Bronx Science. She thought she knew everything about his prions. Or was that muons? He’d forgotten which were the particles that glued up your synapses, and which ones bombarded you without sensation, like a hand passing through a slide projection.

“How, Poppy? I can’t let you fly to Miami all by yourself. What if you get confused?”

Zebatinsky bit back a flippant remark. Getting confused in his own little apartment on West End Avenue and 94th, among the softly creaking shelves of books from thirty-five years of teaching Russian literature, was not only harmless but his privilege, his birthright, which middle-aged Carla was itching to trick him out of, with her sly talk of golf courses and assisted living centers in Connecticut. On the other hand, getting confused in a too-loud, too-bright airport that stank of sweet coffee and porta-potty deodorizer was not an adventure he cared to repeat.

“You’ll come with me. See, it says ‘Isaac Zebatinsky and guest.'” He pointed to the handwritten address on the square ivory envelope, the words scrunching together toward the end as if the writer had miscalculated the size of the small paper. “It’s a weekend. You can do your lesson plans on the plane.”

Carla blinked hard, her way, ever since childhood, of disguising a sudden hurt. See, he was still sharp enough to notice the important things. A mixed blessing because awareness included guilt for his unintentional dig. She didn’t want to tell old Poppy why she was single in her forties but it must bother her more than she let on. Perhaps that excused the tone of her question: “How do you know the Abramoffs, anyway? I don’t remember them.”

He sighed, buying himself some time with the implication of a long and emotional story to come, as he studied the invitation’s embossed sea-blue script: Rabbi and Mrs. Gershom Abramoff welcome you to celebrate the marriage of his daughter Sarah Nicole Abramoff to Jasper Michael Shapiro on Saturday, February 23rd, at 6:30 PM, Temple Shaarei Tefilah, followed by an address in Miami. The truth was, Zebatinsky had no idea who these people were. The xeroxed insert with driving and parking instructions held no landmarks to jog his memory. But was his aging brain the only one that mixed up the places he’d been and the scenes everyone knows from dreams or books? If he could call up a picture of his younger self driving down this “Coral Boulevard” (sun shearing his windshield, palms looming above) to visit his friends the Abramoffs at “Temple Shaarei Tefilah” (boxy white cement with slit windows, abstract stained glass, funereal air-conditioning), would that prove it was real?

“Natalie’s friend,” he decided. “They bunked together at music camp. She used to sing while Beanie played piano.” The old nickname for his daughter came unbidden, along with a sharp image of the tatty wool cap the little girl had demanded to wear every day when she was six or seven.

His living daughter laid her hand over his like a blanket. “It’s sweet of them to stay in touch. I guess we’ll go.”

Zebatinsky managed a faint smile. Having won the battle, he began to fear the war. What would happen when they showed up at this big party, if he still didn’t remember Rabbi Gershom et cetera? He reassured himself that they must have had a good reason to invite him. And anyway, no one really talks or listens at parties anymore — he warmed to the distraction of an old grievance — what with the loud music these kids play and the tedious parade of toasts by the bride’s cousin’s best friends.

More important was the strategic strike against Carla’s stealth campaign to immure her dotty Poppy in a suburban rest home where two shelves of supermarket thrillers was considered a “library”. He imagined the deaths she feared for him: setting his sleeve on fire on the gas range, breaking a hip in the bathtub. His ancestors in Siberia had risked their lives for freedom, why shouldn’t he? At least he’d drown in warm water.

****

Two weeks prior, Rabbi Abramoff had been stamping out paperwork in his office on the temple’s second floor, craning his neck toward the picture window for glimpses of blue in January’s monsoon skies. In-box/out-box, a comfortable fatigue, an ordinary day. Starred plaques on the pastel walls kept time with his years, proof of funds raised and spent, buildings dedicated, knowledge absorbed and tested and submerged again beneath the information useful for today.

What had made him think of Izzy? Not even a thought but a twinge, as on waking from a vanishing dream of standing at the bimah naked. But because the sky looked likely to wash out his lunch break and the fourth-quarter report from the capital campaign was tedious, Rabbi Gershom for once allowed memory to lead him backward.

Maybe it was the line-item for the school that had started this. Temple Shaarei Tefilah’s day school had little in common with the Lower East Side yeshiva where he and Izzy had stuck contraband bubblegum under their bolted-down wooden desks. Named for a donor who had invented some kind of microsurgical apparatus, the Miami school had computers, peanut-free kosher lunches, and field trips to the oceanography lab. The yeshiva wedged between historic tenements on Hester Street was named Beit Tzedek, the Home of the Righteous, which young Geri re-translated in jest as the House of the Correct, a/k/a the House of Correction. Prisoners they seemed to themselves, in de facto uniforms of white shirts and black trousers, squirmy boys captive to their duties of copying and chanting ancient words. But their self-pity was itself a joke, because the two friends had also loved school, the diving deep into ancestral obscurities and resurfacing to show off their cleverness in passionate competition. Izzy’s star had been rising faster, they both knew it, till he had been forced to leave when they were twelve.

Sixty years, give or take. Gershom had never seen or spoken to him again. He couldn’t have, when they were children, only able to go where their parents took them, find the people their families would let them find. It wasn’t like today, when his little grandson from Sarah’s first marriage could go on the Internet and discover how to make a pipe bomb. But, Rabbi Gershom confessed to himself in his empty office, he hadn’t wanted to know Izzy for years after they parted. He’d been angry, righteously angry, and only later ashamed for wanting so much to be correct. And the shame had spread through the memory, like water finding the cracks in a badly built wall, so that eventually it seemed easier to let the whole thing crumble behind him and build anew.

A few times, over the decades, the rabbi had looked for his former friend’s name in the news. He must have made something of himself. A writer, a historian, a teacher? His name was distinctive, but then, his father might have changed it, to give them a fresh start or aid his ascent in the civil service, where Russians were viewed as suspect. Abramoff’s desultory research went nowhere. He was daunted by the size of the world, the number of men in it committing crimes, writing books, lying dead for days in lonely apartments, fighting the Cold War, declaring their pride in doing unspeakable things with other men. Rabbi Gershom didn’t want to know which of these fates was Izzy’s.

Before he could lose his nerve, he wrote the name on a Post-It and took it out to Maya, the secretarial temp, who was filling in while his efficient Mrs. Lohmann was on medical leave. She was young, she could probably find anything on the Internet without breaking a nail. Things about himself he didn’t even know. Talking to her felt strange, unpracticed. He’d been too alone all morning. He’d walk in the rain if necessary.

Maya turned the paper this way and that, squinting her wide hazel eyes, like an archaeologist finding a fragment of hieroglyphics. Too vain to wear glasses, Rabbi Gershom groused internally. If she wasn’t the board president’s niece . . .

“Okay. What do you need this for?” she chirped.

Fresh, too. Taken aback, the rabbi said the first thing that came into his head. “For Sarah’s wedding.”

“Sure thing, I’ll find his address and send him an invitation, right away!”

Not a bad idea, come to think of it. A big party to buffer the awkwardness of their reunion. Gershom could watch him with others, sense his mood, maybe not even bring up the past this time around, not till they’d broken bread together and shared the warmth of wine. The sky was brightening, but he folded his umbrella under his arm as he left the building.

****

Weddings. Carla Zebatinsky, M.Sci., Ed.D., could take them or leave them. She could appreciate the Art Deco reception hall with its tulip-shaped chandeliers, the savory Swedish meatballs and Israeli wine brought to her by light-footed waiters, and the background jazz piano and strings. She could, honestly, relax into the not-Jewishness of it all, its untroubled richness. Her own reflection in the repeating mirrors was adequate: high-necked sleeveless russet cocktail dress, stiff satin pushing her curves into a younger shape, thick chestnut hair twisted up in a French braid instead of the utilitarian bun she wore to teach school. But when she was compelled to linger on the sight, fixing her sweat-smudged makeup in the ladies’ room, she strained to see the Carla that Paige had seen. As if dumb glass, fused silica backed with silver, could tell her what glamour had temporarily covered her and then evaporated.

Carla was aware that Poppy pitied her. It was his way of pretending he lived in the nineteenth century. Daughters in his genre of ethnic tragedy reached an unfortunate age past which they were only fit to escort elderly relatives to parties. She and Natalie had decided long ago to keep the proofs to themselves of hot nights with friendly men who didn’t have to stay. Then Beanie fell in love for real, and was gifted a few years of sweet calm before the aneurysm felled her on the laundry room floor, husband’s unfolded boxers still in hand.

When the ushers at the ceremony had received them for sorting to bride’s or groom’s side, Poppy had eagerly explained that Sarah Abramoff was his daughter’s childhood friend. “Oh, were you at the Schechter school or Camp Ramaz?” the bustling old lady asked Carla, and Poppy corrected her that he meant his younger daughter, Natalie, who couldn’t be here today. Carla blinked twice at this, his story already dropping an essential piece. But she patted his gnarled hand, to show she was happy that he was happy to be here, together looking on the bright side of memories that could have hurt.

The couple of the moment said their brief vows under the chuppah and cracked the traditional wineglass underfoot. Carla didn’t recognize them or anyone, and she had plenty of practice memorizing faces each school year. Her father cheered with the rest, his eyes watery. Then the makeshift canopy was folded, the shards swept away, and the celebration launched.

Contrary to Poppy’s judgment of her, Carla could have been picked to star in a scene like this several times over. Last year, before Paige came to the school, she’d broken off a two-year fling with an orthodontist she’d met on JDate who was ready for her to have his babies. Jason was a catch but it was the same thing all over again, the wall she’d hit with the other men: they just didn’t feel necessary. She concluded she wasn’t wired to feel the surge that had flung Lara into Dr. Zhivago’s arms, that had bonded her mother to Poppy through the birth of three children and death of one, then ruptured that bond before Beanie’s headstone was unveiled. (The former Mrs. Zebatinsky was now married to a documentary producer in Santa Barbara.) That had been Carla’s hypothesis, before Paige.

She was blonde. She was French — well, Québéçoise — and taught that subject down the hall from Carla’s lab. Her mouth was strawberry ice cream pink, born the color of lipstick, without help, as Carla learned on that night they unlocked their cars in the dark, side by side in the school alley. The beginning and the ending didn’t matter. In the middle was everything — oh, in the slippery center of her animal self, mirrored in the other, delving in tandem between shaking legs jumbled together in the janitor’s closet. Words would undo this, but the woman traded in them. The masculine ending, the past tense verb. The promise to un-promise herself to the husband, who got a better job in Chicago and took Paige away at the end of term. The new year began in silence that Carla didn’t expect to be broken.

Taking advantage of what she now knew to be her invisibility, her inconsequential being, Carla wove among the clusters of cocktail drinkers at the Abramoff-Shapiro wedding, on a mission to check up on Poppy. She hovered behind him as he chatted with a bright young couple at a banquet table, comparing their trips to Russia before and after the fall of the Iron Curtain. He was lively, engaged, holding their attention. Carla was about to join them when a cushiony grandmother got there first with her little girl in tow. Turning on the old-world charm, Poppy pulled out a chair for the woman, then entertained the toddler with his pocket watch and chain.

“Professor Zebatinsky taught with Dad at the Center for International Studies,” Carla overheard the young man proclaim.

“Ah, no wonder you looked familiar,” his mother greeted Poppy. “Were you still there when that woman Bamako became president?”

Poppy mimicked her disapproving eyebrow-raise. “She was quite a character.”

Carla was confused, then worried, then angry. The old liar. How many different ways was he going to pretend to know these people? Yet someone had actually invited him, while she, the honest stranger, was nothing but a “plus one”.

That, right there, was why she could not do anything as ridiculous as “come out” to him. Not that his dead Dostoevskian God would care about the chromosomes of her bed partner. But that her discovery of herself had begun and ended in the same way this evening would end, with her extraneous to the pair-bonding of male and female, l’dor va’dor. Above the chuppah, an empty mirror on the wall.

****

In another corner of the noisy, gilded hall, Rabbi Gershom sank into an armchair with a glass of Scotch on the rocks. The rare moment to himself made room for sadness to surprise him. It wasn’t about giving his daughter away. He’d done that before. Rabbi Gershom had come to terms with modern life and could agree that Sarah had always been her own property, not his. No, he was sad because two of his surviving classmates from Beit Tzedek were here: Ephraim the history professor, Dan the lawyer, their wives and some grown children. Their lives were so full of things to talk about, it had been easy, second nature, not to mention Izzy or their teacher Reb Solomon.

Solomon Bader had been their most popular instructor from the day he started at the yeshiva, when Gershom and Izzy were ten. Young and ruddy-cheeked in a school of grey-beards, with a proud nose and full black beard like the statues of Assyrian god-kings in their history books. He taught them to argue every side of a theory, till philosophy seemed like a spinning gem that could blind them with its winking facets. Reb Sol used his title in the classroom, but put the boys at ease after hours with the daring of a first-name friendship. More than half a century later, old Rabbi Gershom could recall the winey taste of the sticky, dried fruit snacks Sol gave them, and the hot heaviness of his hand on Gershom’s shoulder as he leaned over to correct a lesson.

But it was Izzy he favored at first, giving him extra tutoring for a public speaking competition that could win the yeshiva some money from a foundation. The boy’s grades pulled ahead and he had less time to fool around with his friend. Geri, stung that he hadn’t been tapped to compete, threw himself into his own work. Till then he’d foreseen his path as a scholar, like gentle Rabbi Avram, the oldest teacher, but the new Gershom set himself to becoming a smart speaker, humble volunteer, helper of slow learners — the school’s brightest public face. And in some strange way the social tide turned against Izzy, who had become weary-eyed and nervous. When? His best friend hadn’t noticed. All the boys were equally shocked when Izzy pulled out of the competition with an accusation that tore the school apart.

Even with a lifetime of pastoral counseling behind him, the grotesque idea made old Gershom shudder. His private strength, which he’d once been ashamed of, was that he could let his congregants’ confessions rest on him like oil on the water’s surface, to be skimmed off later, leaving everyone feeling clear and clean. Not so with the images of what Izzy whispered that Sol’s hands, his mouth, had done — Rabbi Gershom, and the boy he had been, could feel it like fire ants on his skin.

And so he had not believed him. Did nothing to discourage their friends’ rumors that Izzy was covering for some failure or family shame that would prevent him from representing the school. Or worse, that his false charge concealed desire for the teacher they idolized. A wish they could only speak of with the ancient word for abomination: Toevah.

Reb Sol moved on mid-year to another school in New Jersey. By then, Izzy had been gone for a month. One day he was just not there in his usual seat in front of Geri, winking over the back of the chair at the forgetful stutter of Rabbi Avram’s chalk on the blackboard. His shy mother no longer joined them at the shul’s monthly Shabbat dinner, baby daughter propped on her hip as she circled the table with a serving tray. Gershom flashed on a memory of the child’s fat white hand knocking over a kiddush cup, the awkward pause before someone laughed out a blessing, the reddish-purple stain spreading across the paper tablecloth. And Izzy holding the girl on his lap, like a little old father.

They had believed they were men already. Wearing suits and fedoras, debating the laws of life and death in two languages. Rabbi Gershom’s wife had never blessed him with sons, so this mental picture went unchallenged till Sarah had Matty, his first grandson. He was so small. Nine years old now. A child. Preoccupied with numbers, baseball scores and battles in his computerized worlds. No normal man could look at his hairless freckled body and think of seduction. And if anyone dared suggest Matty were to blame for such a thing —

Toevah. Toevah.

****

Ronnie was bored with her family again. She’d said hello to everyone she knew at Cousin Sarah’s wedding and helped herself to two plates of caviar. Now what? She liked the old gang, but they made her claustrophobic. She just hadn’t expected the feeling to hit this early. Another hour or two and she could be riding her Harley along the beach road in the moonlight, the real reason she couldn’t turn down an invite to Miami.

Families were good at seeing what they already knew, a limitation from which she wasn’t exempt, to be fair. She put old thoughts in their heads and questions in their eyes when she strode past with her black tuxedo pants and jagged short hair, but maybe those thoughts had spun round so many times they’d worn themselves out and gone silent, like the Joan Jett record that kept her alive in middle school. Music, by contrast, was a practice of finding fresh truth in a replayed passage, even as Uncle Gershom claimed to do when he made the congregation listen to the same old fables about plagues and goats and favorite sons. Shaarei Tefilah called itself Conservative/Egalitarian, which meant things could be changed if they pretended it wasn’t happening very fast. Men could dance with women because they were modern, and women with women because they were modest, and either way Ronnie had no excuse not to approach that smart-looking stranger with the rich brown hair and satin dress the color of a midnight kiss.

She waited impatiently till the vapid boy-pop of Justin Bieber gave way to Natasha Bedingfield’s up-tempo “Pocketful of Sunshine”. Ronnie couldn’t lie about music, even to meet the only new prospect in town.

“This song always makes me want to dance. What about you?”

The woman in burgundy was surprised, but maybe, just maybe, dared to be pleased. “I don’t know it, but I’ll give it a try.”

“I’m Sarah’s cousin Ronit — Ronnie. How did you get mixed up with these people?”

Hesitation, then a belly laugh: “I have no idea.” Thinking Ronnie was expecting more words, when it was really movement she longed for, her potential dance partner added, “I don’t think we really belong here. My father got the invitation, but he won’t admit he doesn’t remember why.”

“That’s hilarious. Or is it sad?”

“You tell me!” The woman shrugged her shapely broad shoulders. Ronnie followed her glance in the direction of an old man with a thick neck and Beethoven hair, recounting a story to a young couple as they all refilled their vodka glasses. “At least he’s enjoying himself.”

“Well, now it’s your turn,” Ronnie said. And she grasped the woman’s firm hand and pulled her forward, high heels clacking, onto the ballroom floor. They danced as if they knew the song, the steps, each other. Ronnie liked a woman who could sweat. Slower song, arm’s length, talking now. One lived in Brooklyn, the other the Bronx. What were the odds? Ronnie was a sound engineer at music clubs. Carla taught angular momentum and gravitational attraction to teenagers. They could have a conversation longer than two sentences about the numbers underlying their lives, not measured in babies, dress sizes, ages with and without foundation and blush.

But: the late hour, the ocean . . . “I’ve got a crazy idea,” she told Carla, as if it were new. She would lend Carla her jacket. They’d stash her tottering shoes in the compartment where she kept the spare helmet. No matter how many times in the history of motorcycles this had happened before, the moonlight would be clear as ever, and the waves refreshing on the sand between their toes, each one changing the coastline just a little bit, adding and taking away.

Carla probably didn’t think of herself as impulsive, Ronnie guessed, but here she was, crashing the wedding of a rabbi’s daughter. Second wedding, but that was still two more than the good people of Florida would allow Ronnie’s kind to have. A stray chestnut tendril, sprung loose from her French braid, stuck to Carla’s forehead. Ronnie could only brush it aside in her imagination.

“But Poppy — someone should look after him — ” Her voice was wistful. She was ready to delegate. She just needed Ronnie’s help.

“Here, I know.” Ronnie scanned the ballroom: who was still solo, not yet drunk or in love? “Uncle Gershom looks like he needs a drinking buddy. They’re about the same age, seventies, right? Let’s introduce them. Unless your father has already told him he’s Elie Wiesel’s cardiologist or something.”

Carla chuckled; guilty, but hooked. The night opened up, a smooth silver road. They would let the rabbi know where the Zebatinskys’ hotel was, and would he please help Isaac into a taxi if he got tired before his daughter returned from her walk? Ask him to do what he loved best, caretake the confused. The dimmed lights winked at their doubles in the dark window glass, little golden moons beckoning them to cross over to the outdoors.

****

Halfway through an anecdote about Beanie and Jeremy’s tenth-anniversary vacation in Tel Aviv, Zebatinsky forgot it wasn’t true. Noticed, stopped and resumed, encouraged by the clarifying warmth of his drink, like the glassy sunshine of those desert days. The scent of ripening pomegranates was real, and the sky’s unforgiving swimming-pool blue, and the mad drivers on twisted old streets. Except he’d been there alone, at an academic conference on some vanished topic, in the first year of his loss. And why hadn’t it been Natalie, in his story that was actually also true (except for its protagonist), if not for an eye-blink of that idiot God who had sent a wandering goat into the road to shield the tourist woman from a reckless motorbike?

Zebatinsky had seen the traffic-stopping drama through his rental car’s dusty windshield: the young woman shocked and grateful, furious and laughing, all in a moment, before she released herself into her husband’s arms and let him feel strong again. That was so like Beanie, the way she gave you the gift of needing you, though you both knew she could survive on the air and nectar of life itself. The baby in the husband’s backpack carrier could have been the one she and Jeremy planned, not the unblossomed blob of tissue her womb had housed when her brain spasmed.

Why, then, on this tropical evening, in this crowd of well-wishers, why shouldn’t they have that future that their family had almost touched? Zebatinsky would never see these good people again. Unlikely, moreover, that they’d recall his tale sufficiently to fact-check it later, should their paths re-cross. Feelings were the essence.

He understood why not, of course. Like falling asleep in the false warmth of snow on the steppe, that way led to exile, imprisonment, the benevolent propaganda machine of senility. His ancestors kept their humanity by clinging to the hardest truths. But for once he was tempted to let history slide off his shoulders, stop resisting the hushed and carpeted resting place that Carla urged him toward.

Suddenly a short, stout old man with a trim straw-colored beard rushed up to him, clasping his arm, jostling his drink. Zebatinsky blinked several times before he recognized the rabbi, the father of the bride, the very man he’d seen under the chuppah a couple of hours ago. This slow recall didn’t worry him as much as it would have before the vodka. The other man, however, was quite agitated, his eyes moist behind gold-rimmed spectacles.

“Izzy? Do you remember me — Geri, from Beit Tzedek?”

No one had called him Izzy since — well, since before his bar mitzvah, surely. The rabbi’s incompletely suppressed accent called up echoes of a New York childhood. Zebatinsky could picture the name on the wedding invitation now. “Gershom… Geri,” he pronounced slowly, and smiled. He did belong here.

Taking this for recognition, Gershom burst into shocking tears. Both hands seized his. “Izzy, I believe you! I do. I should have spoken up, all those years ago. Can you forgive me?”

A chill of fear sobered up the old professor. His audience had dispersed, granting them privacy for this strange reunion. “F-forgive?” he stammered.

“I loved our teacher, you understand? We all did. I couldn’t face that he would — do that, that bad thing to you. But I was your friend. I should have known better.”

This was terrible. Zebatinsky’s gut burned. He understood exactly what the rabbi was too squeamish to name. These days it was all over the news, a guaranteed topic for campus literary magazines and freshman composition essays. Zebatinsky himself had had a hinky feeling about his son’s tennis coach and transferred the boy to a different summer camp, using cost as an excuse. But this evil had never touched him personally — had it? Crazy, crazy thought. One heard of such induced oblivion only in ridiculous American spy movies, a young healthy mind (not his gently, deliberately fogged one) lightning-wiped by a secret shock. If — solely for purposes of argument — if Zebatinsky’s life story, unbeknownst to him, resembled the National Enquirer more than The Death of Ivan Ilyich, he would continue to be happier not knowing. Easiest thing in the world to tell poor Gershom that all was forgiven, and go find sulky Carla to call them a taxi.

But looking anew into the rabbi’s stricken, expectant face, Zebatinsky felt the contrariness of his ancestors rise in him, their stubborn preservation of unpopular prophesies. Letting out a long breath, he said, in a voice that for the first time sounded reed-thin to his own ears, “Geri… I have had a long life. A good life, though my heart has been broken. I’ve forgotten many things that I used to think were so important. It’s too late for me to tell you whether what you did was wrong or right. I didn’t even know why you sent me this invitation. To me, it’s as if we met for the first time tonight.”

Thus unburdened, having admitted the weakness he most feared, Zebatinsky was suffused with peace, mixed with pride at his wisdom. He gripped that fluttering bird of enlightenment rather tightly in his mind, as it threatened to escape the annoying embrace of Rabbi Gershom, dampening his shirt front with relieved sobs.

****

Speed, and space, and bare skin in the wind. Carla careened toward the ocean under the enormous sky, nothing binding her to safety except her arms around this woman, this Ronnie, at the front of the roaring bike. Out here in the open, away from buildings and crowds, the cosmic whirl and lines of force she studied were more than a theory. And when they finally stopped, as she’d anticipated they would, to strip off their shoes and stockings and walk unsteadily along the ocean-licked edge of the sand, it almost made her giggle to imagine the moon’s tidal power drew the water just for her, like a father pulling a warm blanket over his child’s feet.

Whatever else happened, moments like this were to be seized. Her family’s history had taught her that. Ronnie might pull a “Freebird” and ride out of her life, tomorrow or months from now when Carla started daydreaming about two-bedroom apartments and artificial insemination, but she, Carla, would henceforth always be someone chosen, someone who had said yes to herself.

Walking slowed to sitting on a bank of sea grass under some stubby, canted trees, squeezed hip to hip on Carla’s spread-out pashmina shawl to keep the salt stains from their formal clothes. Paige’s kisses had been furtive, enticing, with the repeated pretense of a surprising, irresistible fall. Ronnie’s were direct and eager as a boy’s, but sisterly soft, her breaths matching Carla’s ebb and flow.

Some teenagers had lit a driftwood fire along the shore. The women listened to it sputter and crackle, leaning on each other, not needing to push their closeness further yet. “How did you know. . . I’d do this?” Carla murmured.

“First thing when we get back to New York, I’m buying you a gaydar detector.” Ronnie chuckled. “No, seriously…you never know anyone. Not across the proverbial crowded room, not on your thirtieth anniversary. But I’m a gambler. And you — a single woman, at this gold-plated, heterosexual love-fest, who’s not lining up to dance with every divorced groomsman and doctor’s brother — you didn’t need to force your way into their circle. That got my interest.”

“I wish… I don’t think I’m that independent person you saw. That’s Poppy, who could be perfectly happy with nothing but a bookshelf full of dead Russians. In a couple years he may be talking to the pigeons but he’ll believe they’re hanging on his every word about narrative structure in The Cherry Orchard.”

“And you want to grab the mike for a change?”

“Not even. I guess I just want to be myself, and for it to matter that it’s me, listening.”

“It’s very clear to me,” Ronnie said, tracing her finger along the curve of Carla’s breast, “that you’re not a pigeon.”

****

Did you mean…

On that gusty January day a month before, Maya had been perplexed by the search results on her screen. The temp had translated the cramped writing on Rabbi Gershom’s Post-It note into nice clear keystrokes, but the person they conjured up did not sound like the ideal wedding guest.

Showing results for ‘izaac zebatinsky’

. . . Izaac Zebatinsky, two-time winner of the American Psychological Association’s Farber Book Award for Befriending Yourself and Hearing What Your Child Can’t Say . . .

 

 . . . raised over $50,000 to bring the families to the U.S., said Izaac Zebatinsky, chairman of the synagogue’s Soviet Jewry relief committee . . .

 

School Counselor Sentenced in Abuse Case [Staten Island Advance] Nov. 17, 1998 . . .  Izaac Zebatinsky, 57, a family therapist in private practice and former counselor at the Grinspoon Day School . . .

 

People vs. Zebatinsky . . . Decided on March 8, 2007 County Court, Richmond County (NY) . . . A hearing was held to determine the level of risk the defendant Izaac Zebatinsky presents to re-offend . . . convicted in 1998 of two counts of Sexual Abuse in the First Degree, Person Incapable of Consent by Reason of Age (less than eleven-years-old) . . .  The court recommends that Level 2 Offender Status continue . . .

 

Maya peered at the yellow slip of paper again, then back to the monitor, where the search engine was helpfully offering her an out:

Also show results for ‘isaac zebatinsky’

Perhaps she’d read it wrong. “Isaac” was the normal spelling. The letter was so small, a minimal curl of ink connecting the swooping I and the slanted-closed bumps of the a’s. Since no one was around to see her, she popped open the drawer where she stashed her reading glasses, those outdated round frames that made her look (she thought) like a goggle-eyed mosquito. The doctor had promised her contacts would be ready next week, then no more of these headaches.

Maya opened a new window and clicked back and forth, back and forth between the two photos she’d found. The author, the professor. The criminal, the one who . . . well, you never knew, right? And what was with these old Russian guys and their Einstein hairdos? Not like Rabbi Gershom, who was hot stuff for a grandpa, though kind of short. She wanted to show him she could do this job. No more asking dumb questions.

Once she’d copied the address onto the invitation, she cleared her search history (her boss didn’t need to know what she was looking up on WebMD), turned out the lights, and went home.

 

Comments
  1. Jendi Reiter
  2. Tom Benz on

    A very fine story, by turns funny and tragic, with plenty of authentic characters and interesting deception.

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