What she remembers most vividly are his nail-bitten fingers burrowing into her, making her feel alive again, and beautiful. He was never any good at kissing, or intercourse, but his fingers were so far from his brain that they worked almost independently. Joyously. Without guilt.
And she remembers thinking that it was a gift he was giving her. Her last great romance. At the time, she wondered why she was having that thought. But it seemed so inarguable. He was her last hurrah.
Of course things ended badly. But that was built into from the start. He was a religious Jew and she was the other kind, an atheist who referred to herself as “culturally Jewish” when pressed.
Just today she remembered their fight over the chicken. Someone had made a joke about pigs — how genetically similar to humans they were, so much so that a human could live with transplanted pig parts, heart, liver, kidneys, provided they were blessed by a rabbi to make it all kosher (ha, ha) — and it had brought it all back.
She hadn’t seen him for a month. He’d been in Israel, where he lived when he wasn’t teaching in New York. He was coming straight to her place from the airport. She’d decided to surprise him and cook dinner in case he was hungry when he arrived. She’d purchased a chicken and whatever sides she thought went with it. Roasted potatoes, maybe. Or asparagus. Something.
When he saw the chicken he knew instantly that it hadn’t been butchered correctly. It hadn’t been held upside down so the blood could leak out as it should. And he knew in that same moment that she was not the girl for him. Maybe he’d already met the other woman at that point. Maybe he hadn’t. Either way, they’d had a fight. Exchanged words. He’d drunk a lot, very quickly. Scotch. A bottle he’d bought for himself and left at her place. And then he’d left her apartment, the chicken still stewing in its juices.
They’d patched it up and gone on a bit longer. But the thing was moribund. They’d stopped being able to imagine a time in the future when they would truly be together. The burrowing came to an end.
Every so often there was the occasional email. One, an advice column directed to a woman in a similar predicament. A non-religious Jew dating an Orthodox Jew. The advice was to stop trying to change him, and take him to the Prime Grill, known for its fine kosher cuisine.
She never answered any of them.
Then two years later, on the night of her 50th birthday, he called to give her the news. He left it on her answering machine. “Hi, I’m calling from the airport,” he began, as he had so many times in the past.
“I wanted to wish you happy birthday,” he said.
For a moment there was near silence. Just the slightest inhalation of breath. A whisper through the wires. She could picture his nail-bitten thumb crooked under his chin, the other fingers splayed around the side of his face, shielding his cheek, almost as if he were defending himself from his own thoughts. Or what might emanate from them. And then he delivered the coup de grace. “I just wanted you to know that I got married last weekend.”
Perhaps his new wife was in the airport bathroom when he’d made the call. Or perhaps he’d made it right in front of her, though that seemed unlikely.
She’d disconnected her answering machine, and thrown it in the trash. It was an over-the-top gesture. Histrionic and superfluous. But also not.