“Haym.” I stared at her and twisted my face in confusion.
“You can just say the two syllables: hi and um.”
“Haym,” I said, with not just two syllables, but the correct hack of phlegm at the beginning. One corner of her mouth turned up just a little for the first time all conversation. She ran her hand down the blue scarf that covered her hair. Never had something so awkward and guttural sounded so good. “I took four years of German in high school,” I offered for an explanation. Instantly regretted mentioning my vast knowledge of German to the Jewish girl, but the hint of a grin didn't leave her face. “You in school?”
“I just got back from Israel. Seminary for the past year. Now I teach there,” and she gestured to the synagogue up the street.
I leaned forward across the counter. There was a line of customers forming behind her, all waiting for their floral arrangements. “Can women become rabbis? You don't get a real education on these things, growing up lapsed Catholic.”
“No, not when you're Orthodox.” All of her sentences came out succinctly, as if she saw the words on paper in her head, and was reading cold black type fresh from the typewriter. I had a vague idea of what Orthodox meant. Words like stern, cold, and God forbid (or should I say G-d?), conservative floated through my brain. Icky.
“Huh.” I drew out the white satin ribbon and began wrapping it around the autumnal flowers. Two bouquets for two Rosh Hashanah dinners, she said. “So what's it like, being the rabbi's daughter? Anything like being a preacher's daughter?” I was hoping yes. There's nothing quite as rebellious and sensual as a preacher's daughter.
“No, I don't think so. We're all the same,” she said, and kicked her hand back into the air dismissively. The sort of smile was gone, replaced with a calm, sleepy gaze. I began to grope my mind for something that could arouse any sort of reaction out of her. I'll settle for another sort of smile, I thought. Every little thing that could possibly relate to her began to bubble to the surface. Sarah Silverman went to my high school. Adam Sandler went to our rival across the river. I'd read Catcher in the Rye about twice as much as any other book in my life. My mom listened to a lot of Springsteen. A skinny redneck asked me if I was Jewish once. When I asked him why he thought I was, he said it was because of my sense of humor. I wanted to tell her that I didn't know what the hell that meant, but it sounded like a backhanded compliment at worst.
“And here you go, Haym.” I handed the tissue paper wrapped flowers to her. She looked hard at the red and orange mums.
“They're beautiful...” and she looked at my name tag. “Paul.” I smiled and slipped the ticket to her, which I wrote up for about half what the flowers were worth.
I shrugged. “You come in here a lot?” She nodded. “I'm here all the time. Stop in.”
“All right, Paul.” She fluttered her eyelids once, and turned towards the registers. I watched her walk away, her long black skirt flicking at her ankles. They were thin and bony, not unlike the rest of her.
The next woman walked up to the counter and leaned against it. “I'll have what she had.” I complied.
“Gotta tell you, I gave her a good deal because I thought she was cute. Rabbi's daughter no less. Guess I can give you the same deal too,” I said, and then I had to stop myself from winking at her.
“I didn't know he had a daughter so young.” I told her she was nineteen, and she nodded. “I'll put in a good word for you. Why don't you come to Falafel Sunday?”
“Falafel. Sunday?” I asked.
“First Sunday of every month. I know she'll be there.”
“Don't have a choice then,” I said, working up my most wolfish grin. “You really gonna put that word in for me?”
“Of course. But let me tell you about the day I've had...”
I tuned her out as I began to watch a blonde in yoga pants walk out the door behind her.
All week I thought of her. J.D. Salinger's daughter had a biography that mentioned her reading Ivanhoe, and being the only girl in her class who identified with Rebecca, the “raven haired Jewess.” I had to admit, the phrase seemed to sum her up well.
I opened the door to the synagogue. It was totally unlike the Catholic churches I had grown up with, aside from the one stained glass Star of David, which the noonday sun was shining through, throwing blue light onto a wall in the back of the room. A bland woman to the right took my five dollars, and told me to help myself. There were various people milling about, and most of them were sneaking peeks at me, the outsider. In other words, no different from any other church.
I saddled up to the buffet table. Shoving random spoonfuls of food onto the plate, I scanned the faces for Haym without success. I shuffled over to a folding chair in the corner of the room and slumped down with the food in my lap. I prodded the food with my fingers. Something that looked like lasagna with raisins. Brown breaded orbs. I got on board with the pickles, and chewed one idly while I stared at the gap between the marble tiles.
“Forget something?” Haym asked as she placed a fork on the table next to me.
I looked up with a mouthful of pickle and swallowed hard. “Thanks. Surprise seeing you here.”
“Funny, I was thinking the same thing. What brought you here today?”
“My love of...this?” I said as I scooped up a bit of the raisin lasagna with my fork.
“Kugel. Ever had it?”
“Not very gastronomically adventurous, actually.”
“You came all this way, try it.” She pinched a noodle off my plate for herself. Her nails were short and plain, like the rest of her. I took a forkful.
“Not bad. Like sweet mac and cheese.” Haym gave me a knowing nod. “And this was on my way. I've always driven by here and wanted to stop in.”
“Rachel told me about you yesterday. You met her at work?”
I blanked for a moment. I looked her over. A fitted white dress shirt. “Yeah, I helped her right after I helped you. I gave her the same deal on flowers that I gave you because you were cute.”
I was hoping she'd laugh or smile or blush. She frowned. “That's what she said.”
“I didn't mean to offend you. She said I should come by here. Said you'd be here.”
She shifted her weight onto one leg and rested a hand on her hip. “Well I am. What did you want to tell me?”
I rubbed the back of my neck. “I'm not exactly sure now. I just thought you were cool and I wanted to get to know you better. Didn't mean to offend you.”
“Then why didn't you tell me that when I asked you why you're here?” She asked. I had nothing intelligent to respond with, but I started to speak anyway. She cut me off. “Do you take me for an idiot?”
I put my plate on the chair next to me and stood up. “Do I take you for an idiot? Course not. I just wanted to get to know you better.”
“Right. Is that all? I'm not interested in what you want.” She turned and walked to the door, not in a huff, but with the same cool manner in which she seemed to do everything. I followed her outside, squinting as I looked for her while I faced the sun. I saw her sitting on a stone wall across the parking lot, her ankles wrapped around each other. She rolled her eyes as she saw me approach and began to talk while I walked up, but this time I cut her off.
“Jesus, what was that?”
“You don't know anything, do you?”
“How can I if you're going to storm out of every room I'm in? I don't know what your problem is. I thought you were flirting with me when I got you your flowers, and I think you're beautiful. That's it. I've got no secret motive.”
“Other than to fuck me,” she said in a flat tone.
I took a step back. Her words sounded diseased. “Listen, I'm sorry. What do I need to do to make this right?”
She hopped down off the wall. “Buy me a drink.” I twisted my brow and stared at her for a moment. “What?” she asked.
“One second you're giving me the third degree and then...you know what, nevermind. We can get a drink at my place.”
“A public place. Hogan's, up the street. And I'm driving my car. You can follow me if you like.” And then she smiled, finally. It was toothy, and she turned her chin down when she did it, and looked up to me with her dark eyes.
“Don't worry about it. It's a dump.”
And so we went to Hogan's. She drove a Volvo and she drove it fast. When we arrived, she slid out of the car and walked over.
“I didn't know you could drink.”
“I told you, we're all the same. Just needs to be kosher. Besides, isn't this your Sabbath, not mine?”
I shrugged and opened the door for her. The bar was empty aside from a teetering gray haired man in a golf shirt. He raised his glass to us as we walked in. Haym raised an imaginary glass to him. I looked the other way.
“Manischewitz, I presume,” I said when we saddled up.
“Johnnie Walker Blue no ice,” she told the bartender; a pale tattooed kid with a shaved head. She was right about the ID. He didn't bother.
“Hope you're paying for that.”
“Woodchuck.” The bartender nodded and got us the drinks. “Scotch kosher?”
“The expensive stuff is. Why do you look so surprised?”
I shrugged. She made me do that quite a bit. “You just, I don't know, look so clean cut.”
“Like a Russian housewife?”
“I've heard it before. And I bet you think you're plenty worldly, don't you?”
“Been around the block a few times, so to speak. Not to brag, but...”
“Ever even left the country? I've been to Israel, Russia, Germany, and I lived in New York City until two months ago. I plan on moving and serving in the Israeli army. But please, brag to your heart's content.”
It was all I could do not to kiss her on the spot.
“And part of who I am is what I believe. Which you clearly know nothing about.”
I had to admit I didn't. Everything I knew about rabbis, for instance, I gleaned from a Simpsons episode when I was twelve.
“Well now that we're sitting here and I've bought you an extremely expensive glass of scotch, tell me why we'd never work out.”
“Sure. For one, I won't have sex before I'm married.”
“You're awfully hung up on that, aren't you?”
“Aren't you?” she asked. I considered the revolving door I had installed for my bedroom door since my girlfriend left me six months ago.
“Not at all.”
“Come on now.” She finished her scotch and winced. “You're still treating me like an idiot. I knew plenty of men like you in the city. Do you even know what you want out of life?”
“I didn't get up this morning expecting to question my life.”
“You got up expecting to sweep me off my feet. Tell me, did you even bother to research the subject before you decided to approach me?”
“Told you before, I know nothing about what you do or who you are.” I placed my glass on the unfinished wood of the bar a little harder then I meant to. “So fill me in. Is the answer to my life converting? Moving to Israel? Eating kugel all the time?”
“It's working for me. But no, you'd never make it in the faith. Do you know what's involved? Going to my father at least three times and asking to be converted. Studying the Torah for over a year. Obeying 613 different rules. Ritual circumcision.”
“Already there,” I said, smiling.
“Still draw blood as a symbol. You're not getting off that easy. Why are we even talking about this? You're just some overwrought, romantic shegetz who thinks all women bend to his will eventually.”
“You're sitting here in a bar, having a drink with me. I'm doing all right, I think.” I waved to the bartender for another round. “So you can lose the superior tone. I know you were flirting with me before.”
“I was being friendly. Are you never friendly to a woman you don't want to sleep with?”
“Not like you were. Touching the hair...”
“Adjusting my headdress?” She made the same movement she had made before for emphasis. “Was it my outfit then?”
“Is this some sort of bizarre mating ritual I'm just not privy to?”
“One more time. This,” and she pointed back and forth at me and then her, “is not happening. Ever.”
I sighed. “So then why are we here?”
“So you could get to know me. That's what you said you wanted, remember?”
I scoffed. “You're nineteen years old. I don't care how many airports you've been in, you still don't know shit. Ever been in love?”
“Not yet. How is it?”
“Was all right. Can't recommend it in the long term, though.”
“Girl break your heart?” she asked. She leaned in closer, and it was the first sense of warmth I'd gotten from her since we left the temple. Now I remembered what I had seen in her in the first place. Innocence without naivety.
“What's New York like?” I asked.
“Yankees or Mets?”
“Sox. Youk, Kapler? Stern, for a while.”
I leaned back and grinned. “You a baseball fan or a fan of Jewish players?”
“The former. But it helps.”
“What chances do you give them for the rest of the year?”
“You really don't want to talk about her, do you?”
I checked my watch. “Want to see a game? I bet you the Fisher Cats are playing.”
She let out a little laugh. It was high pitched and girlish, maybe even a giggle. It was easy to forget she was five years younger than I was. “I should be getting back.”
“Come on, my treat. Let me show you I'm not a total asshole. Maybe Hank Greenberg's great-grandson got called up to Double-A.”
There were ten dollar seats on the foul line near first base to watch the Fisher Cats play the Newark Bears at some car dealership's branded stadium. It was actually impressive for a town that size. The concourses still had a new car smell, and the maintenance crew hadn't given up on the painted concrete floors yet. I'd bought us all the essentials for enjoying a minor league baseball game; namely, about ten beers. This required going to four different stands, but it was worth it for sure.
We talked about everything and nothing. Public transportation in Germany, crime in the city, Shawn Green's four homer day. Our favorite movies, books, and bands. After two beers I told her about how I'd been spending my time since I'd gotten dumped. How I reasoned that the best way to get over my ex was to put as many women between us as possible. She asked if it was fulfilling. I got more beer.
By the time the seventh inning stretch came around, the Cats were out of it and so was I. The sun was setting, casting a glowing red tint on Haym's tanned face. She had a pleasant, goofy smile.
“Having a good time now?” I asked her, leaning back against the hard plastic seats. Most of the stadium had bailed to go enjoy their summer day somewhere away from the late afternoon's blaring rays.
“You know it.” She pulled her headdress off and wiped her brow. “Now tell me about her.”
I thought about it for a moment. “Not much to tell,” I finally said. “Six years. Six long years she told me, actually. At some point we stopped being right for each other. I wish I could tell people something crazy like she cheated on me or we got into some plate throwing debacle, but it's just not how it was. We stopped working. And she had more balls than I did to end it.”
Haym was looking at me with those big wet eyes, the smile gone.
“You want to see her?” I asked. She nodded. I fumbled with my cell phone and found an old picture we'd taken when we were at the beach the year before, when I thought we'd reconnected over the hotel balcony and a long night of talking.
“Shiksa goddess. So blonde,” she said.
“I know, right? It's natural too.”
“She doesn't look anything like me at all.”
“Should she? Half the girls I sleep with don't look like either of you.”
“You're not trying to get back to her then.”
“Can't do it. It's just not the same anymore. And 'sides, life only moves in one direction anyway: forward. No point in dwelling on the past.”
There was silence between us, while the hundred or so people left in the stadium clapped as the Cats' little second baseman got lucky with a homer just past the foul pole in left.
“We were going to get married, you know? Bought a ring and everything. Night before, she calls it off. That was a year before we broke up. You'd think I would've taken that as a sign, huh?”
“Not as pretty as you.” I began to lean in to kiss her, but stopped when I felt her hand on my arm.
“Have you ever read Songs of Solomon?” I shook my head. “Ever read any of the Bible?” I shook my head harder, my eyes having a hard time keeping up, but just a little. “That one book has a dozen different Hebrew words for love. How many of them do you think you felt for her?”
“All of them at one point or another.”
“And what about now?” she said.
I couldn't respond. I honestly didn't know. “How do you deal with these things?” I asked her. “Religion?”
“No.” She lifted her cup. “This.” She finished it in one quick slug. “You know what Genesis is, right?”
“Now who's treating who like an idiot.” I laughed, finally able to throw her words into her face, albeit slurred.
“It says Jacob worked seven years to be with Rachel, all because he loved her so much. Maybe you just need another year to get it right.” She rubbed my wrist against hers and the hairs on my arm stood straight up.
“Can't do it. What's done is done.” I felt the tears welling up behind my eyes, and I swallowed hard to made them recede. The hot saltwater burned as it traveled down my throat.
“So you're just going to keep doing this? The running around?” She made an exaggerated helicopter motion with her free hand, and her Brooklyn accent was starting to come out.
“So what are you saying? I need to find religion? I need to settle down?”
“I'm saying just give her another chance. When did you last talk to her?” It'd been weeks, I thought. She'd moved her last things out two months ago, and I didn't even know where she was living.
“Paul, just give her a call.” She put her headdress back on, tying it effortlessly in seconds. “You're going to be okay, all right?”
“Mi sheg'malkha kol tov hu yigmalkha kol tov.” She patted my head and looked into my eyes. “Selah.”
She got up and walked up the stairs and out of the stadium. For the first time all day, I could smell the grass over the hot dogs and stewing beer on the ground.
I took a deep breath and pulled out my phone.
About the Author: Kevin Rodriguez is from Manchester, New Hampshire, and is a senior at the University of Alabama-Birmingham. He has previously been published in the 5923 Quarterly and edits the literary journal Bop Dead City.
Story Song: "I've Been a Mess" by American Music Club