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.


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The Last Amaryllis

On Monday it arrived. A medium-sized box, left outside my door beside a smaller box containing the coffee I’d just ordered from Amazon. I knew immediately what it was, and I felt simultaneously agitated and relieved.

I pushed the two boxes inside my door, turned on the lights, opened the fridge, and pulled out a beer. After a sip, I opened the box from Amazon with my new 2-lb. bag of Peruvian black gold and popped the bag into the freezer.

I pushed the other box, the bigger one, with the shipping label from White Flower Farms, into a corner beside my couch, where it would be safely out of the way.

I’d thought that maybe I would just leave the whole thing there for the month and then throw it out when the time came, or perhaps take the box to the post office with a note marked “return to sender.”

But after another sip of beer, I realized that of course I would open it. Even if I simply threw out the potted Amaryllis, with the bulb that would, if watered and tended, slowly sprout and flower over the month of December, I should at least look at the card.

The flower-to-be was from E., who every year sends an Amaryllis to a handful of people on her holiday mailing list — me her oldest friend from college, her mother, her sister, her current girlfriend, her past girlfriend, and perhaps a few others I don’t know about. I can’t imagine any of the other recipients are more pleased by the gift than I am; it is large and unwieldy, takes up half my studio apartment, and can’t in good faith be thrown out until the thing has flowered and died. But it is her way of marking the season.

This past April, E. terminated our friendship via email, after 38 years.  I’d made a sarcastic remark to her 16-year-old daughter about her piggish table manners, and she interpreted it as an “attack”; an attack so vicious that her therapist was surprised she’d even want to remain friends with me, or so she said in that email. Things quickly went from bad to worse. My apology and invitation to call elicited silence. My text to her a month later elicited more vigorous character assassination.

In the months since, I have mourned the loss of what was once life-sustaining. But I also tried, in my way, to look on the bright side. I told myself that now, at last, I would be forced to try to find a relationship. And, of course, I wouldn’t have to deal with the friggin’ Amaryllis anymore.

So when I received the box, seven months after the collapse of our friendship, I was both horrified — horrified to one more time receive this big hulking flower pot with the bulb that takes a month to bloom and several more to die — and relieved that she hadn’t written me off entirely after all.

I tried to go about my business as if the package hadn’t come. I cooked up some pasta for dinner and turned on the radio and puttered around the apartment, but of course it wasn’t as if the package hadn’t come. It had, and I felt that mixture of renewed anger (at this woman who turned on me in an instant and hasn’t yet had the wherewithal or courage or interest or whatever the relevant attribute might be to reach out to have a conversation about what happened) and growing curiosity tinged with hope. Hope that perhaps she did want to renew the friendship after all.

Finally, after the pasta was eaten and the dishes washed and put back in the cabinet, I scissored open the box and removed the greeting. Her note said this: “Some traditions live on!”

I haven’t touched the box since. Though I know that in time I will open it and water it and bring the bulb to life for this, its last season.


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Zone B — An Abecedarian

A perfect storm, waves and wind and an elusive full moon.

Barometric pressures for the record books, and me beforehand shopping endlessly — for nearly all the wrong things.

Canned tuna, of course, to add to the collection from last year in preparation for Irene, and applesauce, but also cheese and eggs that will need to be turned into a quiche as if I were preparing for a party rather than a catastrophe.

De rigor, the tuna, who wouldn’t stock up on that?

Even taped the windows with big Xs of duct tape before learning that it would make no difference if the glass really were to go flying out.

Fortunately, it didn’t.

Grateful for that and for other things large and small.

Highest on the list being the safety of my 89-year-old father, who for this year’s storm had a grandchild with him, a big strapping 6 foot 4 grandchild who grew up in Norway and speaks next to no English, but is still better than no grandchild at all.

I come to life during these emergencies, like a vampire feeding on darkness, temporarily thrust into purposeful action: shopping, cooking, finding and filling flashlights, setting out candles, again as if for a dinner party.

Juxtaposed to all the busyness is the rising panic, kept at bay or nearly so with cigarettes.

Kitchen safety matches, one of the purchases I’m most pleased about — remembering to get them that is, and how useful for starting the gas stove, now that the automatic strikers are out.

Listening to the winds still whipping the branches around the next morning, I am glad to be three floors up … high enough that the tree outside my window would fall below my floor if it were to fall, but not so high that walking up and down the pitch dark stairs is cumbersome.

Morning now again, day three, and already the days are blurring together because of all the days beforehand just waiting.

Never mind that though.

Once I sailed through blackouts with my lover, the city on holiday, and me along with it.

Perambulating up past 26th street, the line of demarcation between power and no power, there are giddy shoppers, so relieved that parts of the city are alive and well and open for business; B&H is a hotbed of activity, the Hasids taxied in from Brooklyn for the feeding frenzy of shoppers in search of electronics, hundreds of them with red earlocks, and brown earlocks, and blonde, and black, and beside them one non-Hasidic security guard.

Quiet again, as another day passes into night, and I scurry back to my tiny warren before total darkness descends.

Restless immediately, too restless to stay put, I venture north again into the light.

Saved, I sip a soda at a Taco Bell, while my phone recharges —  though really I’d gone out for a beer — and watch Cooper Anderson and the big crane on 57th street, the boom of which fell over as if it were made of twigs.

The only incident is the crazy man who enters the Taco Bell screaming, “You should be tied up, not that dog out there.”

Unsure what he might be capable of, I linger in the safety of the fast food restaurant until it seems safe to push on home.

Violent Sandy, despite the insipid name.

When is the big question: when will normalcy return? — though if I understood the politics of survival better there would be other questions; why this neighborhood before that one?; why grandstand about community, while those in them suffer?; why leave two people in an evacuated hospital and forbid the employees to talk to reporters about the situation?

eXodus is the ongoing fantasy.

Yet I stay.

Zone B is where I live.

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You Can’t Keep a Good Girl Down

Today, at the bodega, a nondescript middle-aged woman was at the register ahead of me. She let out a little whoop and then exclaimed, “I can live again.” She closed her wallet and walked to the door, and then she gave a thumbs up. “You can’t keep a good girl down.”

When she’d gone, I asked the proprietor what had happened. Had she just won a quick pick?

“No,” he explained. “She’d just gotten her food stamps. You work, right? She should have been thanking you, and me, and this guy.” He pointed to a black man waiting to buy lottery tickets. “He works for the transit authority.”

We made a sorry lot. Four people in various stages of middle-age and the lower middle-class, with our vices. The woman with the food stamps had probably been buying soda, though I can’t swear to that. I was buying tobacco to roll cigarettes for when the headache from quitting becomes untenable, and the guy running the bodega was cataloging all our vices — the small routines that bind us to this precarious here and now.

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Quitting: Day 9

Irritable and headachy and trying to remember why it’s so important to keep at it. Rachael Ray lost 50 pounds. And Neil Armstrong walked on the moon. And everyday babies that might die fight to live.

And then there are all the people who assume I cannot do this, my younger brother for one.

I can do this. I need to stiffen my resolve.

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Quitting: Day 1

The other day I was at a street fair selling pottery with an acquaintance. I lit my second cigarette of the morning and he asked me how much I smoked. I answered — about half a pack a day, maybe more on the weekends — and then he asked how long I’d smoked. Increasingly, when people ask that question, I feel a kind of fury. Fury at being forced to think about the horrible fact that I’ve spent my entire adult life as a smoker. I didn’t exactly answer, but the acquaintance, the husband of a fellow potter, let it pass. He told me that until he quit, he’d smoked four packs a day. He got off work at four and was in a period of his life when he was between wives. He wasn’t into the bar scene, so he settled into a chair at five and read until two, puffing and reading, puffing and reading, until the day he knew he had to quit.

I asked him if a doctor had urged him to stop. And he said no, he hadn’t needed anyone else to tell him what not being able to breathe meant. And then he said something else. He said that when he looked back on it now, he couldn’t believe how stupid he’d been to smoke all those years. He wished he’d kicked the habit much sooner.

And something clicked in that moment. I didn’t stop right then. I still had half a pack left. But I knew that I would feel just that way when I did finally manage to quit. So I decided to stop putting off the inevitable.

I finished my last cigarette yesterday morning. So while it’s officially Day 1 of being completely smoke-free, it’s starting to feel like Day 2, and it’s starting to feel like I can actually do this. Not the way he did, with no patches, or gum, or anything. But like I can learn to live without constantly excusing myself with a cigarette break. And then maybe I can live without the infusions of nicotine as well.

Nothing terrible happened at work today, so it’s perhaps not the ultimate test, but it was a test all the same. And it’s the first one I’ve passed in years and years.


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Soon after they met, he told her that he was happiest in midair. He was a visiting professor in New York at the time, who lived in Jerusalem. He taught Jewish history. That year he was teaching at Rutgers.

She took it the way she took everything he said then, as one of those things he said. He thought of himself as a man of paradoxes. And this love of midair, leaving one thing and going to another, fit his idea of himself.

She didn’t take it personally. Not then at any rate. In the beginning, he was just a guy she was seeing. The strangest guy she’d ever gone out with, in fact. A religious Jew who drank and lied and kept the Sabbath. A religious Jew who cheated on his wife and then bound his arm in tefillin.

It seemed that the more he cheated, the more religious he became, if that were possible. That first summer after they met, he flew back to Israel and they made plans to hook up in Barcelona later in the season. She hadn’t been able to wait to see him. Apart from the anticipation, the trip going had been unmemorable. It was the trip home that made an impression. They’d snuggled under the skimpy fleece airplane blanket like teenagers.

Her hand was still down his pants when the stewardess came to take their food order. He carefully explained that he’d ordered ahead. A special vegetarian dish, since he kept kosher. “Yes,” she nodded. “Mr. Rubin.” And then she checked his name off a pad that had a list of all the passengers with special food requests. It would have been impossible to remove her hand at that point, so she tried hard to act as if nothing were amiss, and when the stewardess asked if she’d be having a vegetarian dish too, she said no, she was a carnivore.

Later, after the meal, they dozed off, still snuggled under the one skimpy blanket, and when she awoke it was to turbulence. He was awake too, and was praying soundlessly, his lips moving quickly, like they did, the words he’d recited thousands of times blurring together into one long incantation.

“Are you praying for us?” she asked, wishing for a single moment, that there was something she could believe in other than that their plane was going down.

He’d pissed God off, cheating on his wife, in fact, they both had, and now they were going to pay.

A look crossed his brow. A look that said “I am somewhere else now. I am not available for business. Don’t even think of interrupting me.” And she understood then that he was praying not in the way a regular person might, for the bus to come when it’s freezing, or for the power to come back on in a blackout, or for your plane to stay aloft in a rough patch. He was praying in the way that a religious Jew prays at sundown.  How he even knew it was sundown as they traversed the Atlantic was beyond her, but he seemed to.

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