The Old World
No one wants to listen to a man lament his solitary nightsmyself included. Which is why, on an early fall morning four months after Gail left, when a woman breezed into my shop with a pinstriped skirt in her arms and said, "On what day this can be ready?" I didn't write a receipt, tell her Tuesday and move on to the next customer. Instead I said, "Your accent. Russian?"
"The Jewel of the Baltic! I've read a lot about it," I said. "The art, the food, those ancient fishing villages!" On and on I wentthough I had not, in fact, read about it. I had, however, caught a television special once, but I remembered little more than twisted spires, dreary accordions, plates of pink fish, pocked and shiny.
"Ukraine," she said slowly, "is not on the Baltic." She had a wide pale face, full lips and short blond hair dyed the color of curry.
"Ah," I said, and swallowed.
But she didn't walk away. She squinted, as if trying to see me better. Then she leaned across the counter and extended her hand. "Svetlana Gumbar. But call me Sveta."
"I'm Howard Siegel." Then I blanked and blurted, "You can call me anytime you like." She smiled, sort of. The lines sketching the corners of her eyes hinted she was closer to my age than to my daughter's, for which I was thankful: it was too pathetic a jump from the twentysomething girlfriend to the earring and squirrelly ponytail. I laid out her skirt, examining it for stains, and when I finally worked up the nerve, I asked her to dinner.
"What are you doing picking up women on the job?" my daughter said that evening over chicken at her place.
"What's wrong with that?"
"There are better places to look for them. I know two women from Beit Adar who would love to meet you."
Beth was still lovelydark and freckled with eyebrows too thick for her facebut the silk kerchief covering her hair would take some getting used to. So would the mezuzahs hanging in every doorway of her new Brooklyn apartment, the shelf of Hebrew prayer books I doubted she could even read. This was, to say the least, a recent development. And what timing. Right when I was trying to learn how to live alone after forty years of marriage, Beth had left for Jerusalem. And, worse, she came back born againand with a fiancé, Ya'akov, who happened to be a fool.
"Listen," I said, "I've got a feeling about Sveta. You trust my taste in women, don't you, Beth?"
"But why rule out other prospects?" the fool said.
"I'm the one who has to spend an evening with these women, making small talk!"
"Still," he said, "give them a chance." Ya'akov was small and wiry, with agitated little hands and a kippah that slid around his slick brown hair, like even it didn't know what it was doing on his head. He was from Long Island. He had once been Jake "The Snake," pledgemaster of his fraternity. At the wedding his brothers from Sigma Phi had looked as flummoxed as his parents, as if everyone were waiting for Jake to confess that his religious awakening was just an elaborate prank.
"All my wife's trying to say," Ya'akov continued, "is that we know plenty of nice women."
"Maybe you could let Beth speak for herself, Jake."
"But I agree with him," she said. "Why not let us fix you up?"
"I just want to meet someone the normal way," I said. "Shopping for romance after services just doesn't sound like love."
"What do you think love should be, then?" Beth asked.
Outside the coffee shop windows, the swell of late-nighters sauntered past, their gazes concentrated and steady. Sveta looked so much more serene than the rest of the city, tiny and smiling in the big green booth, holding her tea mug with both hands. I sipped my coffee and listened to the goofy beat of my heart.
Excerpted from The Unamericans: Stories by Molly Antopol. Copyright © 2014 by Molly Antopol. With permission of the publisher, W. W. Norton & Company, Inc.
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No Man's Land
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