The wonderful woman showed up one night at a party, where I was telling stories. I fell in love as soon as I saw her. She liked me, too, I could tell. But she had dreams of her own, and in none of them had it ever occurred to her that she might hitch her fortunes to that of a traveling storyteller. This was clear from the first words she spoke to me. "So, what's your real job?"
Her name was Taly, and winning her over took three years and everything I had. It wasn't just my offbeat career choice; adept as I was before a crowd, I floundered miserably when it came to intimate relationships. Joan Baez said it best: "The easiest kind of relationship for me is with ten thousand people. The hardest is with one." Like so many men, I had no idea how to talk about my feelings. Over the next three years, I learned a great deal about how to be with someone, not as a member of my audience, but as a friend and partner, and we turned our attraction into a marriage. It was not easy at first; anyone who has been married knows that it takes work. But we did the work, and as we did, our love grew. We settled into a hundred-year-old redwood house, tucked away in the hills behind the UC Berkeley campus. And it was there, on the back porch, that we sat on a beautiful afternoon in early spring, watching our son and daughter, who were trying to rake up the leaves as they fell from the oak trees in the yard. The first of that year's freesias had just opened, and the air was filled with the scent of their yellow blooms. I looked around, took a deep breath, and suddenly realized that I had made it. That's when I whispered the words.
"Now I am completely happy."
I don't even think Taly heard me. If she had, she would have responded by spitting three times, the traditional Jewish gesture to keep away the evil eye. But I wasn't worried about the evil eye, or anything else. Nothing could stop me, I believed. When I donned my gray fedora, I could talk any curse into a blessing. You see, I thought I had found the secret of happiness. And I planned on being happy for a very long time. "People make plans and God laughs." That's what my father used to say. The Yiddish expression was a favorite of his, one I heard him say at least a thousand times. Still, I must have missed something. Otherwise I would not have been foolish enough to announce my happiness.
It was the morning after my statement that God saw fit to laugh. The day was Purim, appropriately enough, the Jewish holiday that celebrates twists and turns of fate. The story behind the day tells of an evil man who had plotted to kill all the Jews, but failed to realize that the queen was Jewish. In the end, he meets his death on the very gallows he had built for others, while everyone else celebrates. In that sense it's a classic Jewish holiday: "They tried to kill us. They didn't. Let's eat!"
I awoke that morning from a bizarre dream in which I had climbed down the stairs in our house, lifted the piano high above my head, then dropped it onto my right big toe. The strange thing was that, on waking, I found my toe was actually swollen and throbbing with a magnificent pain.
"You'd better call the doctor," Taly said when she saw it.
"Don't be silly. It's nothing."
"Joel, something's wrong. Look at your toe! My God--it looks like it's going to explode! Call the doctor."
I had always avoided doctors, having seen more than enough ushering my father to his death. Taly, on the other hand, lives by the motto, "Cancer until proven otherwise." As a result, she makes frequent trips to doctors and almost always comes back with good news. "Joel, would you call the doctor?" she said again at breakfast, as I finished my oatmeal.
"Look, it's nothing. It'll go away."
"You can barely walk! How can you perform like that?" she asked later, as I was halfway out the door, my storytelling bag in one hand and an armload of Purim costumes in the other, running late to the first of three gigs.
Excerpted from The Beggar King and The Secret of Happiness. Copyright © 2003 by Joel Ben Izzy. Reprinted with the permission of Workman Publishing Co., Inc. All Rights Reserved.
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