I’ve been chasing Feinman since I was twenty-one. By that, I mean, beyond the man himself, the ideal of true love and all its promise.
I met Jakob Lee Feinman when I was just nineteen. Two years older than me, Jake was pre-Med in his last year of school at Washington University in St. Louis when our paths crossed. It was all quite by chance, really, and who would know it would turn out to be so storybook? It saved my life. And it sort of ruined it, too. Ruined me. For anyone else who came along after Feinman, that is.
It was a night like most others at the Central West End bar where I worked nights since turning eighteen, the legal age to peddle booze in our town. The place, called The International, had live music most nights and drew a crowd consisting of hospital workers, college students, foreign tourists and local artsy, bohemian types. It was a fun place to work and hang out. In summer months, an outdoor patio would shimmer and pulse with colorful intellect under Campari umbrellas and cicada-filled trees. The autumn of my nineteenth year brought a new bartender into the place.
Pauletta was a hip and pretty, young woman majoring in dance at Wash U. She had an air of exotic mystery and wisdom about her, as though she was in possession of a secret knowledge to life well lived, devoid of anything meaningless. She took to saying the word phenomenal for all things and people she adored, always with a twinkle in her eyes. We became fast friends sharing a common ground of knowing when it was time to have fun and when it was time to work hard, shifting to all-business mode on a dime. We were a strong team together and made good money that way.
Pauletta would get the drinks made fast and furious and I’d serve them up with aplomb and efficiency. At the end of a busy slam, she’d do a quick pour and we would clink a couple of shot glasses of whiskey together, shoot ‘em back and gear up for the next rush of people. Some nights, we would share a ten-minute break of her invention in tandem. Pauletta would sneak off to the basement office for a few minutes of respite and re-enter the main floor with a Cheshire grin.
“I left a joint downstairs for you. Take a few minutes and indulge,” she would say with a wink.
I’d sidle off down the back staircase in search of my prize, dutifully waiting for me in deft balance on the edge of an ashtray on the accountant’s desk. I’d forget about things for a minute, disappearing into the swirl of smoke around my head, then snap to and find my way back into the madness of the night.
One cold winter’s Tuesday night, we hit the peak of a sustained lull around ten p.m. Pauletta had been busy for the good part of an hour schmoozing a threesome of young men at the far end of the bar. I was hanging out at the front of the room chatting with the band on their break between sets when she waved me over to the service station area of the bar where we waitresses would pick up our drinks.
“My friends from school are hanging out tonight, do you see those three handsome fellows down there, and the guy in the middle in the gray sweatshirt?” she asked.
I glanced over, then looked back at her with a nod.
“Well, he told me he thinks you’re really cute and wants me to get your phone number. What do you think? He’s a real sweetheart.”
I looked over at the threesome again and checked him out more completely. He was pretty handsome for sure and the guy I had been dating of late was sort of a disappointment on his best day, so I said, ”Um, well, OK, I guess. If he has your endorsement.”
“He’s phenomenal,” she said with a big smile as she slid a bar napkin across the bar, pulled a pen out from her dancer’s topknot, and commanded me to, “Write.”
I scribbled onto the napkin, passed it back to her and off she went to deliver it. I watched from afar with a nonchalant eye, resuming my chat with the guitar players. Little did I know what was happening at the other end of the bar. With my napkin in hand, she leaned over to her friend.
“See that waitress over there? Well, she thinks you are really cute and asked me to give you her phone number to call her up for a date,” she said, wagging the napkin with my scrawled digits on it back and forth in the air before depositing it squarely in front of him. I’m sure he was every bit as perplexed as I was.
I got a new four-top just then and it was back to work. When I returned to the service station at the bar with my order for Pauletta, the young man in the gray sweatshirt ambled by on his way to the men’s room and glanced over at me from across the room. Our eyes met, thinking the same thing, no doubt, and we exchanged a furtive smile. He really WAS cute, I thought, seeing him in nearer view. Then it got busy and for the next hour I sort of forgot about the whole thing, hustling back and forth from the bar to the back room and patio with pitchers of beer and loaded potato skins for French speaking grad students and hospital interns finishing another grueling shift at a nearby hospital.
It wasn’t until about 11:30 that night that I happened to look over from a table I was checking on to catch Pauletta’s threesome putting on their coats in preparation for their departure. I dropped an order off at the bar station and, without even thinking much about it, made haste to where they were sitting. Coming up behind them and touching Feinman on the arm to announce my presence, I blurted out, “I just wanted to say ‘Hi’ before you leave.”
He turned his body towards me, glancing down at my hand on his arm, which I removed promptly, realizing it had lingered there perhaps a bit too long. He looked up and into my soul at that moment with a warm smile and golden-brown eyes.
“Oh, good, yeah, hello! I’m Jakob—or Jake—so good to meet you,” he said, offering his hand.
Wow, he was even cuter up close, I thought, which is the opposite of what usually happens. I wondered what he was thinking of me at this proximity and suddenly blushed, dropping my hand then from the warm nestle of his palm. His friends by now were in their coats and edging towards the door. Jake stood and pulled on a wool cap.
“I’ve got to go—my ride. . .but uh, I’ll give you a call later in the week. Maybe Sunday we can have a beer or something?”
I nodded and ran off to get my bar order, excited and nervous and feeling a bit embarrassed even.
“Good work,” Pauletta said when I arrived at the service station as she was placing a gin and tonic onto my tray.
She gave me a little wink and with a wave of her hand signaled an “off you go” gesture as her mission was clearly done.
The rest of the week went along as usual, I had sort of forgotten about the chance encounter, thinking it was probably unlikely he would call. Besides, I had a very busy social life and I was getting ready for a surprise birthday party for the guy I was sort of dating for the past three months, Skizzy. Yep, that was his nickname and everyone called him that. Something about how he could never make up his mind, or something, or just a kid’s thing that stuck, I don’t know, but I didn’t even know his real first name. I had never even thought to ask.
He was seven years older than me and ran with a crowd he had known since grade school, guys that were dyed-in-the-wool South St. Louis boys of German descent, like so many in that town. They loved women, beer and the St. Louis Blues—the hockey team I really mean, but the music genre, too. But mostly they were all disco and Motown, where that was concerned. They loved their city and were loyal to family and friends they had known their whole lives.
The party was set for Saturday night and my sister Annie and I were going. She was dating one of Skizzy’s friends, Mike, and I’m sure that’s how Skizzy and I even ended up together. Annie and I went early to help Mike set up for the bash. Friends trickled in, none of whom Annie or I knew as we were not denizens of South St. Louis, so we all started drinking to lubricate things a bit. Around nine o’clock, we were informed that Skizzy was on his way and the lights were turned down and a giggly hush filled the room. Imagine my consternation when the door opened and the lights came on and everyone yelled “surprise”—but— the surprise was actually on me. There stood Skizzy with a pretty blond on his arm, kissing him in excitement over her part in pulling off the surprise party.
I stood somewhere in the background, but I caught his eye soon enough and he looked mortified upon discovering my presence in the room. Caught. In his deception. I watched the two of them with their friends for several minutes and edged in close enough to hear some of the banter, enough to glean that SHE, not I, was Skizzy’s girlfriend, and everyone knew that but me. Why would Mike have allowed me to be there knowing that I would discover the truth? Maybe that was the point. I searched the room for Annie. I needed to get out of there fast.
Annie was nowhere in sight and her car keys were wherever she was, of which I had no idea. My guess was that she and Mike had slipped away into his bedroom and I could only hope would resurface at some point sooner than later. I didn’t really even know where in the world we were but I knew a cab ride home would cost me a small fortune.
Skizzy made no attempt to talk to me at all so, imprisoned and sinking deeper into sub-aqueous humiliation, I just drank more beer and acted like I didn’t care about him either. At one point, a very drunk friend of his came up to me and repeatedly tried kissing my face.
“Skizzy doesn’t care about you at all,” he said. “Obviously. He has been with that woman for six years! You didn’t know? He just gets bored once in a while. C’mon, baby! How ’bout me?” and he grabbed me with both arms to pull me in closer.
I forcefully pushed away from him with an inadvertent slap landing on his left ear that he more than deserved. Then I stole away to the kitchen to fall into the crowd for safety. I edged up against a window near the keg, making nonsensical small talk with a rotation of guests. I searched for common ground with each of them to make an untenable situation seem normal, since I had no other choice but to go the distance until Annie materialized.
The endless night faded into black and the next thing I knew I was waking up to birdsong on a couch in the den of the house, by myself and fully clothed thankfully, cowboy boots intact. But with contact lenses pasted to my eyeballs. I lay there, blinking rapidly to bring moisture to them and clarity to the situation. I was humiliated and hungover and miserable, wondering when I might finally get home. Annie appeared moments after that thought crossed my consciousness, coming down the staircase looking apologetic.
“Let’s get out of here and get some breakfast at the Majestic. It’s on me. I’m so sorry about last night.”
We stumbled into her orange Honda Civic, a car that always grumbled upon ignition, matching my sentiments exactly at that moment. We drove back into the familiar turf of Euclid and Laclede and found our booth at the diner. With coffee poured, we dissected the evening interspersed with multiple repetitions of “oh well”, what an ass” and “there’s someone better out there for you.”
I suddenly remembered “Jakob—or Jake,” and that today was the Sunday we were supposed to go out. I told Annie the details of our meeting at the bar and that I thought he was really cute and seemed cool but that I doubted he would even call me.
“How could I possibly even go out with him in the condition I’m in, anyway. After the night I just had!” I said, almost hoping it would fall through.
After a few more cups of coffee, we slipped back into the Honda and headed home to sleep off disappointment’s shadowy inhabitation.
Somewhere in dreamland, light-years later, my name was called. Louder and louder still, until I recognized it was Annie’s voice urging me to wake up.
“What? Whaddya want. Go away. . .”
“No, wake up. That guy—he called you. But you have to get up now and call him back,” I heard her say as though spoken into a megaphone through a 4th dimension time warp.
“Who? What’re you talkin’ about?” I replied from my cloud.
Our older sister Katie had answered the phone and told him I wasn’t home and she didn’t know where I was or when I’d be back, scribbled down his phone number and hung up. Annie happened to be nearby and caught the end of the conversation.
“Wait. She IS home,” Annie announced. “She’s upstairs asleep. Who was it? She was waiting for a special call!” Annie added.
“Some guy,” Katie said dismissively. “Here.”
She handed the slip of paper to Annie.
“He said he’d be around for another hour if she wants to call back,” Katie said.
Katie had nothing invested in my future, filled a bowl with popcorn and disappeared into the TV room and her favorite place on the couch. So, Annie had come to my rescue, perhaps hoping to redeem herself from the night before and the debacle of Skizzy’s party. She was next to me, pushing my shoulder now.
“Get up. Go call him back. Now!”
I stirred out of my slumber well enough to realize my eyes were supremely dry and my mouth even dryer and a sense of urgency was doubling back, waiting for me to catch up to it. Shaking off the grit and dismay of the night before, I took the piece of paper with the phone number on it from Annie’s hand. Eleven minutes later, retrieving it from my back pocket, I paced the basement family room, picked up the receiver of the phone and looked again at the slip of paper in my hand. As always in my parent’s house, music was playing on the turntable.
American Garage. Pat Matheny.
One of my favorites of late. I’d put it on to calm myself but it was also carefully curated to create a backdrop of cool and collected nonchalance.
I dialed, listened to the ring and waited.
“HELL-uh,” he said with a slight up tone on Hell and spoken not as a question like most people answer the phone, but a statement.
“Oh, hi. Is this Jake?” I asked.
“Yes, it is?” This, oddly spoken like a question, not a statement.
“Hi, Jake. I’m sorry I missed your call earlier. . .umm, we met the other night at the bar, ummm, I’m Pauletta’s friend,” I started.
“Oh, yeah, I’m glad you caught me, I was getting ready to leave. What’s up? You wanna go have a beer or something. . .Hey! Is that Pat Matheny you’re playing?”
“Uh, yeah, it’s um, American Garage,” I answered.
“I love that record!” he said then paused to my silence, as I was still somewhat lost in a foggy state of consciousness. “So, you have time tonight, then. Or are you busy?” he asked.
We made a plan for him to pick me up at my parents on that cold night that was preparing to lay a new heavy coat of snow on the ground.
I felt like I could barely keep my bloodshot eyes open and a beer was really the last thing I needed but I was curious about him. The guys on my recent roster were such duds and Skizzy was clearly my rock bottom. I needed a new distraction, a way of moving on from the humiliation. This guy seemed like he was smart and cool, I had seen how cute he was, and I could always sleep later.
After picking me up and realizing I was under-age for the bars, we made the rounds to his friends’ apartments near the Wash U. campus in search of a fake ID for me. That’s the kind of guy he was, Jake Feinman, never seeing a problem that couldn’t be solved and just handling it. His friends were all affable and smart and I’m sure my first impression wasn’t too great as I was feeling like putting an intelligent sentence together was so out of reach. After the night I’d just had.
The ID I ended up with didn’t look much like me at all. It belonged to Julie Lipsberg, a Psych major, a tall, shapely brunette with brown eyes and aquiline nose, but bars are dark right? I usually used Annie’s ID and was wishing I had thought to ask her for it earlier. In the car, I devised a mnemonic to memorize Julie Lipsberg’s date of birth, address and other stats, in case I was thrown a pop quiz.
So, off we went to test it out, landing in a Welsh pub in the West End called Llewellyn’s. It was a dark place, which I was glad of, not just for the ID but for fear of my current appearance. You know, after the night I’d just had.
Feinman ordered us a couple of half-and-half’s and some loaded potato skins. We got carded but it was so busy, the waitress barely even looked at us. The beers arrived, big mugs filled to the brim with half tap beer, half Guinness Stout, and I felt my hand shaking and my lips tremble as I lifted the dark and ominous liquid to my mouth, hoping he didn’t notice. By the time I was halfway down the mug, I was catching a rhythm with the brew though still feeling a bit too out-of-body to be interesting to anyone. But, hair of the dog, right? Down the hatch.
The elixir relaxed my anxious nerves as I did my best to keep alert. But, believe me, if he hadn’t been so cute and charming I might have bailed early. What on earth must he have thought of me—maybe that I was shy? Nervous? Well, those half-and-halfs were just what I needed, apparently. No, it was going ok, really, and we left Llewellyn’s for a bigger scene.
My fake ID was tested again at Carlito’s, a sprawling, hip bar with live music, and making it through the line to enter was the only hurdle. After that, I pretty much eased into the night. We grabbed a table back behind the dance floor where I sat waiting while Feinman waded through the crowd at the bar to fetch us a couple of quaffs. He returned ten minutes later and grinned at me as he held out a cherry—one of those garnish things so bright red with artificial food coloring, cloyingly pickled in a sugary brine meant for a Tom Collins or other sweet cocktails.
“I thought you might like one of these,” he said.
I took it by the stem and smiled, plucking it off with my teeth and said, “Oh, I love these, thanks!”
Was there some sort of metaphor in this act, I wondered as I chewed. Something about forbidden fruit, or something biblical or sensual intended here? Or just a simple movement of chivalry and charm? Maybe it was just a spontaneous moment acting on his own sweet tooth. Whatever, it somehow made me feel he had been thinking about me in the mere moments we were apart as he waited at the bar. I liked that. I liked that a lot.
And I felt like he knew that a little gesture could go a long way with a girl on a first date.
We ended up back at his apartment a few blocks away which was nothing off the beaten path of what usually happened on my dates. We kissed a little on the edge of his bed but nothing more. That was the part that was the detour. We could hear the approaching storm through the shaking windows and it seemed prudent to Feinman to “get me home before the car doors freeze shut and the conditions become too treacherous.”
I agreed, but honestly, I was a bit surprised. The kind of guy I was used to would use that kind of weather as a ploy to get me to stay all night. “It’s not safe for us to drive in this weather,” that guy would say. “You had better just stay here for the night.” Yeah, ok, I’d probably say.
But not Feinman. He had thought this through another way.
That other guy would have had one hand up my shirt by now, the other hand grappling with my belt buckle in seconds flat. This guy? He was respectful and kind. He was practical and wise. I felt like he liked me but wanted to get to know me and that was a real refreshing and welcome difference. I’d never met this guy before and until that moment, naive as I was, thought that other kind of guy was just the way things were.
It was the 1970s after all, and who knew women could say no and be heard? Who knew a guy could have something else on his mind besides sex while in the presence of a woman? That a guy could feel that a girl had substance worthy of his curiosity for the mere sake of learning how another human being ticked. That was an unknown concept, wasn’t it? Could a guy actually see me as his equal?
My parents didn’t ever talk to us about these things and all we could do was share stories among our girlfriends and navigate our own dangerous way through the maze of gender politics, sexual predicaments and relationship conundrums.
When I got back to my parent’s home and crawled into bed that night, so happy to be able to finally drop into a deep and rejuvenating sleep, I smiled to myself in the afterglow of the evening, warm all over on a snowstorm of a night, in giddy anticipation of something great, a new paradigm. Something I needed. Someone I needed. Who was right and wonderful. Finally. My excitement soon gave way to exhaustion and I fell deep.
I would wake the next day to a new perspective altogether.
I had two days off from work and time to let things wash over me and sink in. The past was just that and I had a fresh new start. A chance at real happiness, I felt. Is this what it means when people say, “I was walking on air”?
It was that kind of feeling you might have when you wake up in another country. You throw open the windows of your charming bed and breakfast onto a new view and the birds chirp and the air is crisp and all is new and good. You walk those foreign streets and absolutely everything is different in the best way imaginable. Your senses have been awakened. New sights, new smells, new tastes. You are a newborn emerging from the darkened womb into a world you previously did not know existed.
The next week at The International, Pauletta was eager to hear how things went. Standing together over a quick, pre-shift coffee in the prep kitchen, I told her about my evening with Jakob Feinman and that I really liked him.
“He really liked you too. He told me in the Quad on Monday. I just knew you two would hit it off. He’s a fine man, isn’t he?” she said with a wink before heading out to the bar to set up for the night.
That Friday, Jake and I had our second date over beers served up for free by a friend at Wash U’s Rathskellar Pub—or “the Rat” as it was fondly known on campus. In much better form now, we chatted about all kinds of things. I already felt like I’d known him forever and could just be myself, say anything that was on my mind. I candidly told him he was the first guy who hadn’t tried something on the first date.
“I thought maybe you decided you didn’t really like me or something.”
“Oh, I like you a lot!”
He wasn’t shy about sharing either. He was clearly very comfortable in his own skin and open with his thoughts and emotions.
“That’s the whole thing. I want to know who you are. And, well, there’s a bit more to it. See, I’ve been in this relationship. . .well, more of a ‘friends with benefits thing’, and it hasn’t really been working out with her, we’re not a good match.”
Oh, here we go, I thought, dream shattered. But I waited for him to continue.
“I’ve been planning on breaking it off with her for a couple of weeks but we work together in this program so it’s a bit awkward. I was gonna wait until the program ends a week from Friday to tell her,” he said.
“My heart isn’t there for her and I know she knows it, too. But it just didn’t seem fair to her to be intimate with you before I ended things with her. Officially,” he explained.
I thought of Skizzy. I hadn’t even considered his heart, if he actually had one, that is. It seemed to me it was so obviously over between us without the need for any official declaration. If anything, he owed me an explanation. Skizzy had made an attempt at my attention when he came into the bar three weeks after his surprise party, but by then he was dust in the wind. I just smiled and said hello and kept working like he was just another customer sitting at the bar and he just went along with that. Let off the hook, in his eyes, no doubt. After that, he barely ever came in unless it was with a big crowd. I’d hand off the table to some other waitress eager to make a big tip. It was all just par for the course in the game of love and sex in the 70s, I had figured. Did I ever even have any real feelings for the guy?
By contrast, I was uplifted by Feinman’s care with another person’s heart and his honesty with me. Was there no end to the surprises from this guy?
“I’m gonna see her tomorrow. I’m gonna ask her to go for a beer after our shift and tell her then,” Jake said definitively.
A man of his word, that is exactly what he did. I knew that because two days later, Rachel, the rejected lover, came in to The International to check me out. Pauletta alerted me to a group of college students entering through the vestibule.
“Don’t seat them in your section” she said, “I’ll explain in a minute,” as she poured shots into a row of hi-ball glasses.
The pretty, curly haired woman sat with her friends and sobbed into a napkin for the next two hours, watching me work the room. On a third visit over the next nine days, after downing a pitcher of beer with two other women, she finally mustered up the nerve to call me over and tell me who she was, even though I already knew, of course.
“I’m the girl that got dumped for you to have Jake,” she announced.
Wow, a real heartbreaker, that Feinman, I thought, which worried me a bit but reminded me of how lucky I was, at the same time. After that, I never saw her again. Feinman and I were free to explore our relationship with no obstacles. At least, none that I was aware of yet.
“So, you finally met a guy that treats you right, huh?”
My older brother Donnie and I were in the kitchen putting scoops of ice cream onto slices of my mom’s peach pie the night my family met Jake for the first time.
“I was startin’ to worry about ya, girl,” Donnie added.
It was no secret to anyone that Feinman was different. He dressed differently than my other suitors. Collegiate. He had mature and refined social skills, combed hair, spoke like a learned man, engaged others in an affable manner. A far cry from the pot-smoking, bad boy guttersnipes of my recent repertoire of love interests. As we finished up the last of the coffee and dessert, Donnie couldn’t help himself. He turned to Feinman.
“Thank you, man. You’re the best thing that’s happened to my sister in years. You wouldn’t believe the cast of characters!”
“Donnie, please. Don’t pay any attention, Jake, he just likes to give me a hard time,” I said.
Donnie turned his head swiftly to me.
“What? What did I do?”
Then turning right back to Jake he said, “No, really. I mean it. I’m really glad you two met. That’s all,” dropping the last forkful of pie into his mouth.
Feinman, a bit red in the face but smiling, turned to me then and back to Don and replied, “I’m really glad, too.”
I snuck a glance in the direction of my mom and saw her staring at me, stone faced. She nodded her head almost imperceptibly in a kind of bridled yet cautionary agreement, then looked at Donnie as she stood.
“Help me clear the plates, Don?”
Jake was an all-star soccer player on his college team and his friends were handsome rich boys from all over the country. All over the world, really. There was Jacques from the Ivory Coast, Arturo from Brazil and Hector from Mexico City, all sexy and exotic. From the sidelines I watched them play, meeting up with them afterwards at parties to celebrate wins and drown out the few losses. I sometimes felt like the “Townie” in the company of such well-bred, interesting young men but they were all fun and friendly.
It was Jake’s roommate, Harry, and his friends, that were a challenge for me. All wealthy East Coasters from Baltimore, Long Island and Philly, they cast a more judgmental eye, tried to catch me up in some contradictory sentence or less than well informed point of view. They dangled their expensive college educations in front of my face like keys to a treasure chest that I, in my lower middle-class local girl status, would never have access to.
Jake was skilled at deflecting a dagger or two thrown my way unawares. Though he always looked for the best in everyone, he made haste in chiding them for being gauche, a word he liked to use towards anyone displaying inelegant behavior. To me, those boys were snobs who practiced at being entitled heirs to their father’s fortunes and the rich man’s rules of the game. I was an unworthy enigma to them.
Nevertheless, our love blossomed over the next several months, on dates to hear live music—we sat front row at a Pat Matheny concert at the intimate Graham Chapel on campus—out dancing together at clubs, wandering street fairs hand in hand. We dined at upscale romantic restaurants but more often at dives around the city—we loved our hole-in-the-wall pizza joint on Grand Avenue run by two Italian men who barely spoke a word of English. We would take walks through the campus Quad with his dog, Layla. We loved movies out and home cooked meals in. He liked my friends and the bar and the parts of the city he had never known before meeting me.
We never had a single argument. If we appeared to be in slightest disagreement about something, Jake would say, “Let’s have a glass of something and talk it over.”
He was a diplomat. A gentleman. A non-reactive Buddha. A sophisticate and a bon-vivant who saw no point in wasting time on being discontent. Yep, we were a match made in heaven. We had the same temperament and shared an ironic sense of humor. Our tastes and desires matched exactly in everything: music, food, a respectful fondness for beer and weed. We loved the same books and movies, having fun in nature, playing with dogs, hanging out with friends. Not a beat was missed.
There was just one thing, though. Jake was Jewish.
To me, that was nothing even though I was raised Irish Catholic. I don’t even know if my parents thought it was any big thing, they never said. I think they were playing the watchful waiting game, really, assuming it would all work out eventually. Or maybe that detail was nothing much of anything to them, either. So, to me, Jake being a Jew, and me not being a Jew, was akin to the difference in the color of our eyes, mine blue and his brown. Just a fact but nothing to get all fussy about.
To his family, Jake was “golden boy” and from their point of reference, I was surely the bruise on their perfect apple? The blight of industry in the middle of their pristine wilderness? The scratch on their otherwise mint condition Jaguar? Were they just making an allowance for his collegiate folly of dating the goy—a rite of passage maybe, letting him get it out of his system. I couldn’t know. And I certainly didn’t give it much consideration.
That summer before turning twenty, I took my first ever trip to Chicago by train. Jake had finished school and went home for the two-week break before graduation. His parents were leaving soon on a trip for five days before meeting up with everyone in St. Louis for the commencement ceremony and a big celebration. Jake and I were entrusted to house sit for those few days. But first, a mandatory meeting with the parents.
It was one of those hot and muggy days of a Midwest summer and I had on a short skirt paired with a white crocheted top that I wore bra-less, buttoned down the front with an open butterfly design on the back that showed plenty of skin. Feinman was happy to see me when we met up at the station but immediately expressed concern about my appearance for meeting his mom. I protested the heat and he shrugged his shoulders. Plus, I was lugging his gargantuan suitcase he had asked me to bring on the train, rendering me the last passenger off to an anxiously waiting boyfriend. So, he let that one go.
We drove excitedly to his parent’s home in a wealthy North Shore suburb. As we turned the corner onto his street, I buttoned the front of my top a little higher in an attempt at modesty. Jake’s mother must have heard our arrival in the driveway, as she was standing at the open front door to greet us, ushering us into the posh home.
Her eyes were all over me in unveiled scrutiny. Bea Feinman seemed less than pleased to meet me, studying me curiously like I was a peculiar but exotic animal at the zoo. We sat in the kitchen while his mother ran through a memorized list of responsibilities while they were gone. When she presented an envelope of three crisp one hundred-dollar bills, she handed it to me in a gesture of great faith.
“I want you to be in charge of this,” she announced. “Jake might spend it all too fast. Or forget where he put it.”
I thanked her and set it on the kitchen table in front of me. She immediately chastised me.
“Put that away somewhere safe right now!”
It both startled and perplexed me, seeming to be the opposite of the trust she had just bestowed upon me. I quickly slipped it into my purse and gave her a nod.
Jake’s dad, Alvin Feinman, was a whole different personality altogether, you know what they say about opposites. He greeted me warmly upon his arrival home from the pharmacy he ran downtown. Always mellow, always smiling, often telling his wife in a gentle manner to relax and enjoy things. Don’t worry so much. He was beautiful inside and out, like Jake, with sparkling golden-brown eyes. His head was shaved bald and his smile revealed a double row of perfect, pearly white teeth.
He wore a heavy gold watch and another thick band of gold on his right pinkie. He had me in the palm of his hand and I could see that his son took after him in a perfected imprint. We had dinner out in the city that night at one of those Lettuce Entertain You theme restaurants with huge buffet tables and long wine lists, plush booth seating and bright decor. It was stimulation overload and I was working hard at keeping up.
I’d never spent time with a boyfriend’s parents in such a way before. Clearly, the grilling was not just of the select meats on display, I was also on the coals:
What did I do? Wasn’t I going to college? What were my ambitions, my interests in life? What did my parents do? Was my family originally from St. Louis?
Jake tried his best deflection techniques, trying to lighten things up with humor at every turn. But it was Jake’s dad who finally brought the inquisition down a notch when the dessert cart appeared, redirecting everyone’s immediate attention. I was glad for the rescue, however temporary.
The whole experience was new turf for me. The questions were rare, almost raw. The interrogation far from well done and the gristly bits were gnawed clean off the bone by night’s end. The only thing I had to hold onto was the knowledge that Jake’s parents were leaving the next day around noon, so I just had to get through breakfast and then I could breathe easy again.
When we got home, we were all tired and I was shown to my bedroom on the second floor while Jake was told he would, of course, be in his old room on the third, down the hall from his parent’s master bedroom.
As I settled into my private chamber, the first moment I had to myself since we arrived, I sat on the bed and heaved an audible sigh. Within minutes, I heard a knock on my door, and opening it, found Jake grinning on the other side.
“Meet me in the basement in one hour,” he said.
Which I did for a brief rendezvous, then fell into my bed afterwards into a deep, rejuvenating sleep.
The next morning, I was trapped in a vortex. The windows had those room-darkening shades and I had no idea what time it was so on an occasional stir to consciousness, it seemed like it was still the middle of the night. I’d roll over and fall back into dreamland. After a while, I finally got up to pee and from the hallway, I could hear the sound of lively conversation below. It was a whole different day in that part of the house. I had been held captive and presumed missing in a temporal climate-controlled alt-universe, it seemed. In semi-panic mode, I quickly dressed and padded down the stairs.
“There she is!” Jake declared, “Well, you’re a sleepy head.”
My eyes scanned the room and found the clock on the stove. I read in disbelief:
10:47! Ten freakin’ forty-seven!
“Why didn’t you wake me. . .I might have slept all day!”
I said it before realizing the potential implication of my words making me out to be indolent, clueless, dazed and confused. I looked around the room in search of something tangible:
An almost empty coffee pot with its button reading OFF, the sunny glare of an approaching hot afternoon announcing itself through the kitchen window, his mom unloading the dishwasher with breakfast dishes cleaned well past the hour of my arrival.
Now I was surely embedding an impression of being not only slutty dressing and unschooled, but lazy and slothful to boot, in her eyes. Eyes that were once again looking me up and down with a slight smirk scrawled across an otherwise monotone expression. His dad, at the pharmacy tying up loose ends, was no longer there to provide succor.
“I’ll put on a fresh pot of joe,” Feinman said with a big smile, breaking an awkwardness that had become as sticky as maple syrup left sitting on a plate too long.
After his parents left town, Jake and I went out on the town every night in Chicago, returning exhausted to our plush digs as though we were rich young newlyweds. The larder was full, the weather splendid. One fine day while cruising Lake Shore Drive, Jake turned to me and smiled broadly.
“Stick with me, baby, I’m gonna be rich!”
I believed without a single doubt that he would. His driven ambition, his worldly nature and confidence, above and beyond mine, pushed possibility and promise in new directions of a future I would be lucky as a lottery winner to be granted. In the shimmer of summer breeze off gleaming Lake Michigan, everything seemed innocent, flawlessly moving towards perfection and good fortune in love and life.
I was meeting his old friends now, so different from the college crowd he had fallen in with. His high school buddies were more down to earth with less polish, less swagger and shine. One night out for pizza at Gino’s, we sat washing it down with pitchers of beer with his good friend Marv. He was a sassy fellow, full of cynicism and wit. We got into it over some point of feminist thought and, tired of his sexist monologue, I spontaneously threw my mug of beer in his face.
Feinman was stunned but seemingly supportive of the act as he had also been bristling over his friend’s rambling commentary. Marv broke into a loud guffaw as patrons seated in neighboring booths stopped frozen in mid-bite, watching wide eyed and incredulous.
“Now, THAT I respect in a woman,” he said loudly, “But. It would not be in my nature to just leave it alone!”
He evened the score, lifted his mug high and swiftly pouring it over my head. Now we were two wet hens, literally, to Jake’s emerging embarrassment. Luckily, we had already paid the check and were able to make a hasty departure!
Back in St. Louis, spring became summer and things returned to a tamer and measured pace. After all the graduation to-do was over, we really fell into a rhythm together and when Pauletta suggested a camping getaway, just the three of us, we said yes immediately. On the drive to some riverside campground, we sang along to Steve Miller Band and talked about summer plans. Time, clearly, was slipping, slipping, slipping into the future. And as urban became increasingly more rural and we turned finally onto a dirt road just a few miles from our destination, Pauletta revealed to us how she had decided quite independently on that winter night in the bar that we would be perfect for each other and took it upon herself to do a little matchmaking.
“I put my shadchanit hat on for you and I take full credit for how well things turned out,” she said with a big grin.
“I just knew,” she affirmed, passing a freshly lit joint to me.
I was always getting lessons in Yiddish words and Jewish customs from them and learned that shidduch was the common practice otherwise known as matchmaking, and a shadchanit was the woman assuming the role and taking charge of the task. As she continued unveiling her tale of the technique she had employed to bring us together, I passed the joint to Feinman, sharing a look of mutual surprise.
“Neither of you would have acted on your own so I had to do it for you. So. You’re welcome,” Pauletta said.
She giggled and took the joint back from me and up to her lips, proud of the good work she had done.
“This new weed I got is phenomenal, don’t you think?” she said as we pulled into our home for the weekend, parking under a row of willowy river birch.
“Let’s get in the water before we do anything else!” she said.
She was our pied piper. She had a way of casting a spell of contentment on others by her mere presence. And her phenomenal weed didn’t hurt matters either. Feinman and I would follow her lead anywhere. She created magic and danced around it like a divine princess of unbridled joy. The following week after her dance performance, Pauletta left for the East Coast and I never saw her again. Poof. Like an apparition that had come into our lives to change them forever, gone in the wind when we were looking the other way.
But, that weekend, now it was pure magic. We frolicked about, napped under the shade trees and cooled ourselves in the river. Camping together this first time, we discovered our bliss as a couple. By the end of Sunday afternoon, we had plotted a bigger trip together:
To California in late July, in between our summer birthdays.
We discovered that we both had an older brother living in San Francisco and the genesis of an idea emerged over campfire wine and refried beans; caught fire over boiled coffee and scrambled eggs in the morning; and became rock solid as granite on a final swim before our departure back to the city.
We would stay with our brothers in California for a few days, then hitchhike up the coast to Oregon on a real adventure!
Just before our trip, my twentieth birthday rolled up in early July and Feinman arranged a surprise party for me at his apartment. We went out to dinner and when we returned, I noticed an unfamiliar jacket flung over one of the living room chairs. There were always friends visiting, so I guess I figured it was somehow left by one of them on a recent visit. Catching the direction of my gaze, Feinman deflected my line of thought swiftly.
“Let’s have a glass of something in the backyard. It’s a beautiful night,” he said.
“Why don’t you head out to the picnic table. I frosted up some mugs in the freezer earlier, I’ll get us a couple beers and meet you out there,” he added to nudge me along.
Successfully distracted, I headed through the kitchen and down the three steps to the door that opened to the lush and private backyard. When I flung the door open, the yell of “Surprise!” came all at once with clapping and laughing from the joyful faces of ten of my closest crew gathered around the picnic table.
Jake suddenly appeared not with cold mugs of beer but with a cake lit with candles. My friends, already tipsy, joined in the usual celebratory song. Presents were opened and plates of sliced German chocolate cake passed around the table and then, those cold mugs of beer were delivered as promised. It was a brilliant night, my friends being folks who knew how to party, the whole affair so joyful and unexpected. Fun. Warm and fuzzy. After everyone left, Jake and I plopped down into the couch and reviewed the night’s highlights.
“OK, one more thing. MY present. Wait here,” he said, scampering off to the bedroom returning with a small box in his hand with a pink ribbon wrapped around it. My heart skipped a beat as Jake handed me the box.
“Happy Birthday,” he said so proudly.
I took the box from his hand with a “What’s this, Jake?” pulling slowly at the little pink ribbon to untie it from the box, letting it fall into my lap as I slowly lifted off the top. I pulled apart the leaves of tissue to find a brilliant ruby stone, set into a gold heart shaped pendant with eleven small faux diamonds dotting the outline of the heart.
“Oh, my goodness, Jake! This is beautiful!” I said, looking up at his beaming face.
“You like it? I would have put twenty of those sparkly things on but it wouldn’t fit so I told them to put eleven because it sounds like ‘Lovin.’ And 11 is like the two of us standing side by side.”
He paused and looked at me expectantly.
“But they did engrave the number 20 on the back. See?” he said, as he stepped in closer and turned the pendant over in the box to reveal the etched number. Underneath the number, in small script were the letters “RJF”, our combined initials with our shared J in the middle.
“You had this custom made?” I asked with surprise in my voice.
“Yep. Just for you, my love, my babe-a-la. Happy Birthday!”
I pulled it from the box and asked him to clasp it around my neck and he did. I took the pendant into my hand and rubbed it softly.
“I love it, Jake, I just love it. And I love you.”
I stood up then and gave him a kiss. We embraced for what seemed like eternity.
Everybody knows when you are a tourist in San Francisco. You’re the one in shorts and a tank top in the middle of a fog belt wondering could it really be July. Mark Twain wasn’t kidding when he said, “The coldest winter I ever spent was summer in San Francisco.” Truly.
Scavenging his brother’s closet for warmer clothes, we spent the better part of a week roaming around that great city by the Bay, visiting the usual spots one must see. But because we had two superb guides, my brother the musician and his brother the outdoor recreation guy, we went to music and comedy clubs, world class beaches and hiking trails, fantastic restaurants and coffee houses and bakeries tucked away in cool neighborhoods. It was an extraordinary trip.
Jake’s brother worked for an outdoor recreation gear outfitter and set us up with all the stuff we needed for the second leg of our trip, an ambitious plan to hitchhike and camp our way up the coast to Portland, Oregon and back. Our compatibility did not waver or suffer one iota, we just continued to find our bliss together riding in the back of pick-up trucks, camping under dripping redwood trees and gazing out at windswept coastlines.
By the time we made it back to San Francisco for our last two nights, something had shifted into a new place for us. An intriguing man with a dog we made temporary acquaintance with on a leg into Eugene had told us about a restaurant on a cliff down the coast a bit from San Francisco that he recommended highly with a twinkle in his eye.
On our last night, we borrowed Feinman’s brother’s car and landed in that romantic, exquisite spot our friend in Eugene had told us about. It was clearly designed for decadent lovers in celebration mode. Feinman seemed nervous to me.
Was he worried about the cost, I wondered? There were no prices listed on the menu. No, that wasn’t his style. But something was tugging at him in those first minutes at the table together. Finally, after we had ordered our food and a nice bottle of wine, he turned to me.
“I brought you here because I wanted to ask you something important.”
He paused and looked out the window at waves crashing dramatically against the rocks and then back into my eyes.
“I think you’re great. I’m so happy. I’ve decided to take the next year off while I apply to Med school, and well, Harry is moving out at the end of August and I think you should move in. Will you move in with me?” he asked, searching my eyes for symbiotic convergence.
I think you know what my answer was.
About that necklace. I’ve worn it every day of my life since that day of my twentieth surprise birthday party. Putting it on with great care every morning and touching that ruby softly each time, I would ritually wonder the proverbial “what if”, in the later years of my life. Because, you see, things didn’t work out for Feinman and me, in the long run I mean.
Feinman told me a month into our cohabitation that on the last day of our San Francisco trip, his brother had taken him aside and told him he really, really liked me, thought I was great. But there was more to that conversation. A lot more. More that I would learn later, on a walk back from getting ice cream in our neighborhood.
I’ll get to that part of the story later.
First, we had so much time together that is worth telling you about. Let me enjoy that for another minute.
I moved into Feinman’s one bedroom, railroad flat in a fourplex the day after Harry left, shuttling my things from my parent’s home in University City to the West End before work on a stifling hot, late August afternoon. Layla was underfoot and confused by the commotion, looking Jake’s way for some answers that could only be answered with some loving strokes and cooing words. She would adjust in time.
The apartment was classic St. Louis with an all-brick exterior and a long walkway off the street up a set of steps to the building, set in a row of other fourplexes, on a tree lined street. Inside, exposed brick lent a rustic charm and hardwood floors seemed to incline just ever so slightly from front to back, especially noticeable while cooking on the kitchen stove. The apartment’s only flaw. I guess there’s always got to be that one thing, right?
The front room was light-filled and set up for hanging out with a comfy couch and two big sitting chairs. There were bars on the windows throughout to discourage urban criminals. It’s St. Louis, what can I say. And that big, enclosed backyard with a picnic table I told you about—the one where my friends waited to surprise me on my birthday that night—and a fire pit and a couple of cushioned lounge chairs for those lazy, dog days of summer.
Before I arrived that day, Jake had dismantled the make-shift second bedroom he had created for himself when he was living with Harry and a second living room area was suddenly revealed where it had once been disguised. Like the apartment, our world was expanding. He had moved his waterbed into the back bedroom, a beautiful room I had never even seen until that day. Rent was $250 a month and, being that it was my first apartment it seemed like a lot, so Jake insisted I pay only $100 as my share of the rent. His first noble act as my “roommate.”
When I returned from work that night to my new life with Feinman, he had candles lighting up the front room, champagne on ice, and that ear-to-ear joyful smile of his welcoming me home and into his heart forever. The next few months were so sweet. We loved doing everything together.
We got a second dog, Alma, to add to the mix and the two dogs would wander off on a daily walkabout together to who knows where, returning with mischief and contentment in their eyes and exhaustion in their bodies. Every night Layla and Alma would take their places on the floor or in the big easy chair in our bedroom and every morning we would wake to find them in the bed with us. Patiently waiting for us to nod into deep sleep, they would deftly and quietly make their way onto the gentle waves of the waterbed without so much as a stir from us.
Our neighbors in the fourplex were a delightful group. Carlene, an artist, lived upstairs with her boyfriend Ian from New Zealand, who we could barely understand, about to have a baby together. Underneath them was Stephen, a young business professional who liked to chat with us in the hallway about his weekend warrior outings to take the edge off his stressful job. And directly above us were Rob and Harvey, two thirty-something hippy guys from Brooklyn who sort of kept to themselves.
We never really ran into them or interacted like we did with the other tenants for some reason, though we all knew each other by face and name. And we knew this much about them: they loved basketball and the New York Knicks. Considering we had such very little contact with these two guys ever, why would we know that about them? Well, I’ll tell you why. During the NBA season, they would watch games on TV and pass a basketball back and forth. When things got really exciting, Harvey would start bouncing the ball in place where he sat and scream with the fervor of a fan in the stands.
With hardwood floors, you can imagine how loud that was for us! One night, sitting in our front room, it got unbearable. Feinman turned to me when I said we had to do something, what are we gonna do!
He flashed one of his wide grins at me.
“You know how to handle this? I’ll show you how you handle this.”
He left the room and returned with our stash box, sat down and rolled up a joint. Oh, that’s what we’re gonna do, I thought, get stoned and forget about it. But, no, this was not my little diplomat’s plan. When he finished rolling up the doob, he closed the box, stood up placing the fresh J in the chest pocket of his flannel shirt.
“Follow me,” he said.
We walked up the stairs to the second floor and knocked on the door of Harvey and Rob’s apartment. We heard some stirring and the noise suddenly quieted to a muffled hush. Rob finally cracked the door just enough to see us, the strangers on the other side, and said hello with a surprised and confused look on his face.
“You guys watchin’ the Knicks game?” Feinman asked.
Rob nodded, opening the crack a bit more so we could catch a glimpse of Harvey on the couch with the ball in his hands, eyes darting quickly between us and the TV. Jake pulled the joint out of his pocket and smiled.
“Mind if we join you for a quarter?”
The door was opened wide then as Rob ushered us in, motioning to the couch as he ran to the kitchen for another chair and two beers hanging from a plastic six-pack ring. As the end of the first quarter approached, Feinman stoked up the joint and began a brief commentary on the season so far. Harvey and Rob joined in with their own analysis as the joint went around the room and a cold can of Bud was passed between me and Jake.
I watched as the guys bonded in camaraderie over the game the way only men can do. No mention was made of anything else but that. As the game reached a feverish pitch again in the second quarter, Harvey started bouncing his ball with vigor, bouncing up and down, too, in his seat on the couch like a little kid! He was so exuberant and we hated to stifle that but I glanced over to Jake indicating that this was his cue.
Jake started with a joyful laugh, looking towards Rob for confirmation.
“He sure does get involved with the game, doesn’t he!”
Rob nodded, knocking back the last of his beer.
“I know, he’s a maniac this guy.”
Just then a referee on the TV blew a whistle, a timeout was called and Jake saw his “in”. He laughed again, aiming his eyes at Harvey now.
“You are such a great fan, Harvey! Now, ya know. . . I mean, can you imagine what that bouncing ball sounds like for us downstairs, pounding over our heads?”
Feinman laughed joyfully again.
“It’s pretty crazy loud, buddy, you big fanatic, you!”
He flashed his charming ear-to-ear grin for Harvey who stared wide-eyed, ball glued between two hands. He sat back and tucked the ball into his lap, embarrassed.
“Oh wow, man. I hadn’t thought of that. Sorry, oh wow. What a dummy I am,” he said.
Rob shook his head with a little snort and smiled over at Jake. Jake laughed again.
“No sweat. I’m a sports guy, too. I know how it is when ya get excited. I don’t mean to crush your enthusiasm and fun, bro. It’s. Just. Loud.”
We all started laughing then and before anyone had time to feel awkward, the game started up again and we were back in it, with Harvey’s basketball retired to the end of the couch like a chastised toddler on a time-out. Besides. Feinman hadn’t created anything awkward, he was too skilled for that. It was just good fun between new friends living in the moment. A sharing of information in a kindly manner.
We watched more of the game together until the half-time buzzer, had a bit of idle chatter, then Jake stood.
“Well, we’ll leave ya to it. C’mon babe, let’s go make some dinner. Hey, thanks for inviting us in, it was a pleasure hangin’ out!”
They thanked us for the joint, Rob patting Jake on the back as he escorted us to the door and we left. On the way down the stairs, Jake ahead of me on the stair below laughed again and looked at me over his shoulder.
“That’s how you handle a problem like that. Become friends first.”
He winked at me as he turned the key to our apartment door, knowing he had just imparted a valuable life lesson to me. Unlocking, too, one of the many secrets of a life in harmony with the world around him.
“Where do all those words come from?”
I asked Feinman this one day as I scooped fresh melon balls onto a plate of prosciutto at the backyard table. Having just returned from our usual Saturday morning at Soulard Market, we were settling in with some fresh and tasty goods.
“It’s Yiddish. And they’re words that define things better than anything. Take chutzpah for example, I mean it just is what it sounds like. Or kvetch. . .”
“What does that mean again?” I asked.
“Kvetching is complaining. And then there’s plotz, like to collapse from the exhaustion of something. Perfect. I personally love schlep. I mean c’mon, that’s exactly what it feels like to lug a bunch of stuff you don’t even really want. Right?”
“Oh, yeah, I see what you mean. They’re very descriptive. And funny,” I said.
“But I feel like they’re your words,” I continued. “Like I’m not really licensed to drive them. I think we should make up our own word that is just ours, like a secret password. We could make up some phrases, too, make our own language that isn’t defined by religion or traditions. Or our heritage.”
He was entertained by that idea and we started throwing around some funny sounds and phrases. Feinman’s way of speech was always interesting to me from day one, anyway, an amalgam of all the people and experiences of his life.
He loved the phrase “heavy duty” for things he thought were intense or challenging. He had taken to using Pauletta’s “phenomenal” for things he was amazed by or cherished. He had taken to calling me babe-a-la, with its added Yiddish ending of endearment.
He spoke in a mash-up of Chicago-tinted English, some Spanish, Portuguese, French and Yiddish words. Always calling his dog Layla to action with a vamos, referring to vulgar people as gauche or a gossipy woman from school, a yenta.
“Let’s have a glass of something, maybe that will help,” he said.
He disappeared inside and returned with two wine glasses and a leftover bottle of Chardonnay from the fridge. He poured and we lifted and clinked to his “L’Chaim.”
“No wait,” I said. “Here is our point of departure. Let’s come up with our own toast, our own word. I mean, every culture has its own toast and it’s like the words really only have cache if you’re from that place or in that place. Let’s make up our own so no matter where we are in the world, or in our lives, we are always in our place.”
So, we searched and laughed and mined the depths of our creative minds for just the right sound and intuitively right line-up of letters. A trip to the corner store and another bottle of white later, we found it.
Not sure how it came to be the word, but it sounded like a drunken—and oddly still a bit Yiddish—way of saying peace and love. It just stuck after that.
So, I promised you I would get back to the part about the conversation Jake had with his brother right before we left San Francisco. The rest of that conversation he couldn’t tell me about right away. So here it is.
The beginning of the end.
You see, Feinman and I never really had arguments. I think I said that already, but this is still such a surprise to me. I’d had one too many boyfriends who were possessive and prone to bouts of temper and jealousy. With Jake, I often wondered, who is this perfect man and how did I get so lucky. We certainly never raised our voices to each other and if one of us got a little ruffled by something, we always talked it out in even tones. Only once did things wander a bit out of bounds.
Walking back to our apartment after a stroll for ice cream on that fateful, dream-crushing night, I turned to Jake.
“Ya know, all my friends really love you, Jake. They always tell me that.”
He smiled at me with his whole face, happily embracing those words of approval.
“But. I feel. Well, I feel like your Jewish friends don’t really like me as much as your non-Jewish friends,” I continued. “Am I just imagining that?”
There was momentary silence as he fully absorbed the weight of my question.
“Well. Hmmm. Well. I know it’s. . .well, it’s like this. Jewish people are ‘The Chosen People.’ I mean, we are a tribe, we see ourselves as special, set apart.”
I didn’t understand and asked if that meant I was not special. He stopped and turned to me, putting his hands on my shoulders.
“You are special, of course. So special,” he said.
“But it’s a whole big thing. I’m not sure I can explain it exactly. It’s like, we survived so much as a people and there is both a sense of pride and a responsibility to that,” he explained.
It was then that he shared with me the remaining words his brother had spoken to him. The rest of that conversation. He dropped the big reveal right there on the sidewalk. Two blocks from home.
“Remember, I told you about how my brother took me aside and told me how much he likes you, right? Really, really likes you. But. . .” he said, with a slight pause before continuing.
“But. My brother also said if we carried on our relationship into a marriage, he would never speak to me again.”
He explained how his brother had told him flat out, unequivocally, that he would disown him because I was not Jewish. And who knows what his parents were whispering in his ear that he wasn’t telling me. We’ll cut off your funds, or worse, I imagined.
I was shocked and dismayed, remembering the beautiful rapport I had felt with his brother and my eyes started to well up, my heart pounded in my chest. Jake and I were truly best friends wrapped up in a love beyond any definition I had ever thought possible. What was happening right now? I tried to weather the blow, but my emotional body was coming forward through my skin. Past bones and blood and soft tissue, right to the surface.
“What does that mean, exactly?! What if we want to get married—I mean I’m not even thinking about. . .but what if we did eventually want to consider the possibility of. . .” I queried with an ascending shrillness in my voice.
Feinman looked down at the ground for a good ten seconds.
When his eyes met mine again, all he said was this:
He tried explaining further.
“I mean, not just my brother, my parents. . .my whole family would not approve of it and I have to do right by them. You see. . .”
I couldn’t see. I was incredulous. But mostly I was crestfallen. Dizzy. Dumbfounded. Disconsolate. Blue. His words barely audible in the swirl of my swelling confusion and grief.
“What if I converted to Judaism? Wouldn’t that be OK?” I offered, tears starting down my cheeks now.
An elderly couple was approaching and I could see them in my periphery. They were walking their dog, clearly noting the tenor of things and eyeing us surreptitiously, trying to mind their own business. Feinman nodded to them with a sad half-smile and waited for them to pass.
“Babe-a-la, we can’t. My family, all of them have told me that wouldn’t be enough.
“Listen carefully,” he went on, holding my shoulders warmly in both hands with the purest intention.
“I want to start a family one day soon and my children have to be, I mean, my parent’s grandchildren have. to. be. completely Jewish. By blood.”
He looked down again then looked up at me.
I felt desperate.
“Well, so we don’t get married and don’t have children. . .or. . .we have children and do things our own way. . .” I proposed.
He shook his head.
“That’s just craziness,” he said in a hushed tone.
I was fully dissolving by now.
“I don’t understand this, isn’t love all that matters?! I’ve never felt like this before with anyone. And you’re just going to wave that away based on some. . .some. . .”
I couldn’t find a word for it.
What was this? Forbidden love? Suddenly I understood Feinman’s urging of me to follow my passion even if it meant we couldn’t be together. Was his support of me finding my future life as an artist steeped in ulterior motive? A way out? A distraction for me to move away from him to quietly lick my wounds and recover? An easy way for him to exit stage left and return to his family waiting in the wings?
The message seemed to be: Love is not all that matters.
We stood in silence for another minute or two, looking into the ground for answers. Clarity. Something etched in the pavement. Anything that might reverse the nature of things as they had taken this wrong turn.
Feinman grabbed my arm in his.
“Let’s just walk. We’re almost home. We can talk about it some more when we get there.”
Neither of us spoke the next two blocks to our apartment and I made a beeline to the bathroom when we got inside. I peed, blew my nose. I splashed some cold water on my face and patted it dry with a towel staring at my sad self in the mirror. When I emerged, Feinman was standing in the kitchen facing the bathroom door, waiting.
“Let’s have a glass of something,” he proposed.
I nodded and he pulled a bottle of Chardonnay from the fridge and set it on the table while I pulled two glasses off the shelf and set them down next to the bottle, silently motioning to him to pour.
That was one of his signature things to say, you may have noticed by now and I think I told you anyway.
Let’s have a glass of something.
He liked to say it whenever something seemed at an impasse or in need of resolution or there was a need for a new look at a thing, a new angle. He’d utter it in the midst of an issue with a friend, receiving sad news or happy news, to begin the planning of some new adventure or idea, heck, even a tie score in the middle of a World Cup match could elicit those words from his mouth. And of course, it was also always uttered when it was time to celebrate or pay tribute to something.
But this was not a time for celebration. It was a time of mourning. At least for me. Surely he had always known it would be this way and had anticipated this moment, this very conversation. Just not so soon. He was prepared and I was not. He began to explain to me some basic tenets of his religion. I sat across from him at our kitchen table just staring into his face, listening with every fiber of my being.
“So. Having said all that, I feel the same as you do, like this is a one true love that I never have felt before either and may never know again,” he said.
But it wasn’t his decision. Decisions were made by and for the whole family—no, an entire tribe— to support an ethos, a tradition, a way of life that simply could not be violated. Lines could not be crossed.
It would be like knowingly throwing water onto the eternal flame, hoping no one was looking as smoke rose in choking shades of gray from the drenched coals. But to me, the flame wasn’t “my people.” It was our love.
Our once-in-a-lifetime-this-happens, monumentally grand, vibrantly awakened, sacred love. And his words were coming down on that flame in a slow but steady rain. I mean, what was this, Romeo and Juliette, for fuck’s sake?
Then suddenly, it was December. Jake was in Chicago for two weeks.
One evening I was at work, standing in the wait station at the end of the bar when Julius. a regular patron of the bar, an old philosopher kind of fellow, began to get sentimental, lamenting a lost love over a snifter of Armagnac.
“We were separated for four months and that was it. Absence doesn’t always make the heart grow fonder, like they want you to believe. Absence is like wind to a flame,” he waxed poetic, “It either fans the ember into a brilliant fire or it blows it completely out. Alas, for me the latter.”
Jake was about to leave on a six-month, solo backpacking trip across Europe, visiting with his parents in Chicago before he would return to St. Louis for a few days just prior to departure. This was going to be his swan song to “free and easy” before he fell deep into the rigors of Med school at Northwestern in the Fall. A trip he had always dreamed of doing alone and I wasn’t going to stand in the way of that plan. I think he was also looking for some big answers to his own life questions. And maybe, I was still hoping for our flames to burn brilliant.
He would be gone from January to June and I, well I would just keep working at the bar, wondering what would happen next. I got a roommate for the apartment, my high school friend Marcie who was working at The International with me now, and I would just somehow carry on. He would come to his senses while he was traveling, I fantasized, and miss me, sort out his future—a future that he would decide just had to have me in it.
“Stick with me, baby, I’m gonna be rich!”
I could see us in living color on that spin around Lake Shore Drive on that innocent summer day. Had he not known the finite nature of things on that day, uttering that promise of bright and beautiful and everlasting? On that day? A day that had not yet been littered with the detritus of reality as defined by bigger things than us. Not defined by us. Defined for us. For me.
It was months later when I sat at the bar after a long, hard night of work, sipping on a warm “glass of something” thinking about Jake. It was two a.m. and I was waiting for Marcie to finish cashing out. I realized I was sitting on the very stool he was sitting on the night I first laid eyes on him, the night I had placed my hand inside his warm palm. Pauletta had been replaced by an aloof and humorless older gentleman who barely gave me the time of day. Jake was well into his trip, now, somewhere else far from me on a train to somewhere else moving even farther away from me each day that passed.
Or sleeping in a crowded youth hostel off Las Ramblas in Barcelona. On a kibbutz in Israel washing dishes. Or writing in a journal in a Parisian cafe just off la Rue Mouffetard. Whatever and wherever, the whole landscape had changed. I was in that pentimento layer of a painting that was covered up, sitting just beneath the surface of a newer, less defined, less exquisite rendering by the artist, trying to peek through to the light. Calling out to be seen, recognized, understood. Rescued. From a restless captivity.
“I’ve been taking some classes at the Junior College near my parent’s house. Life drawing. We have a live model. And I’m taking a painting class, too. I think I might like to go to a real art school one day,” I told Jake over beer at a dive on Grand.
It was late June and he had arrived back in Chicago after his trip, taking the train down to St. Louis for a few days to “tie up some loose ends,” he had said in a brief telegram I’d received two weeks prior from London.
“That’s great. I’ve always hoped for you to do that, you’re so talented,” Jake said.
He had arrived the afternoon before. A Wednesday. At two-eleven. I had waited in the front room looking out on the street, watching for his taxi, glancing at the wall clock every five minutes. I’d wanted to pick him up at the station but this way would be easier, he had said. I met him at the doorstep of the apartment, Alma barking and jumping at him for attention. Layla had gone to his parent’s home in Chicago to stay during his trip to Europe. We had hated to separate the dogs, but it was the best plan we had decided.
We embraced at the doorstep.
“Well, come in! Let’s have a glass of something!” I said, with a laugh, waiting for his recognition.
He smiled and we walked into the foyer, I fumbled with the keys. We entered the apartment’s light-filled front room. He remarked on how strange it felt to be in the apartment again. It had more of a woman’s vibe now, he told me.
He shared some stories of his travels, things he hadn’t told me about in the frequent and long letters he had sent me detailing his adventures. We drank and laughed and eventually fell into bed together for the rest of the afternoon. There was a lot of easy talking those few hours together but I could tell there were important words being left unspoken and I worried for that. Could feel it in my bloodstream. We were suspending the inevitable.
The weekend unfolded organically, long breakfasts and dinners, a viewing of slides from his trip, walks in the neighborhood to our favorite bars—half-and-half’s at Llewelyn’s, like the old days—walks in Forest Park with Alma. It seemed vaguely reminiscent of us and yet, something was absolutely, ineffably changed. It’s like what they say about how you can’t ever go back home to the place where you grew up. And Feinman was home to me, and, I had hoped, I was for him, too. But the walls of our interior space had all been repainted. A renovation was in the works.
“You excited about school?” I asked as we sat down for a couple of pints in the back room of Tom’s Bar and Grill.
“Yeah, oh yeah! A little nervous, too. I’ve had a pretty amazing time this past six months, it’s gonna be a big change. Serious.”
I’d thought about the big change we had endured, that I had endured, and wondered about it silently.
He looked into my eyes, searching for the shorthand of understanding that was usually present but I just looked away then, checking out a group of people laughing over a story at a nearby table, wishing for the ease and joy of that right now. My eyes drifted back only to fall into the abyss of my beer.
Jake grabbed my hand.
“We need to talk about it.”
“OK,” I said. “So talk.”
You can imagine the anguish, the heartbreak, the tears and the deep sadness of that moment, I don’t need to tell you about all that. I had wondered, though, why we had carried on the way we did, pretending at being who we had been before he’d left to travel. But, beyond that, something more was happening. We were gasping in love’s last breaths. Reaching for the buoy in an endless sea. Loving each other so deeply. Connecting our souls with every word and action over the past few days.
I guess this was the “tying up of loose ends,” as he had said in the telegram. Ends that were tied up so intricately into a Gordian knot, but absent of any bold action or determined mind to undo them. We left it to sit instead, by itself, waiting for someone more heroic to come along to solve that puzzle.
We had known we were in the final throes of it, basking in the final waning hours of sunlight before darkness would creep in. Reciting the denouement in the last act of our passion play. The definitive words were never actually spoken out loud between us, no one wanted that responsibility. Just vague references. Metaphors. Probabilities. The lights would eventually dim, the curtain would slowly close and we would simply exit the theater of our romance.
It was another Sunday. Marcie and I were at her parent’s house, sitting in the backyard post-brunch, her mom’s dog Muffin sitting on Marcie’s lap. A cool breeze came along now and again to cool us down. It had been a solid year since Feinman and I last saw each other and it was deemed over. Unofficially.
“You seem a little somewhere else, what’s up with you, lady?” Marci asked me as I nursed a cold can of Bud Lite, a squished-up lime wedge sitting on top in an attempt to give it some life.
Marcie knew me so well, like a sister. She and I had been best friends since we were twelve, knew everything about each other’s thoughts and feelings. We shared everything with each other: intimate details about our “firsts” with guys, our dreams for getting out of St. Louis, our crappy day at work stories, our disappointments and our triumphs. And, of course as my roommate, we also shared the apartment I had once shared with Jake. We were as close as two girls can be. I had even dated her older brother Frank for three months in the tenth grade.
I shrugged my shoulders and looked at Muffin, so content, nowhere else she would rather be than in Marcie’s lap. I looked up at the sky then back down at Muffin again, then at Marcie.
“I’d like to be as happy as that Muffin dog. What’s the secret? It just seems so. . .unattainable.”
“Well, it might help if you gave a little attention to your love life, girl,” Marcie said. “Did you ever see that guy who was so hot after you. . .what was his name, uh, uh, that Sumpter guy, Frankie’s bowling buddy. The sandy blonde?”
I stared off into space and dropped it just under my breath.
“Sumner. Joey Sumner. Nope,” I said.
“Why the heck not,” she posed. “I thought he was so cute with you at that party. And he worships the ground you walk on, everyone can see that. He’s in awe of you. It’s like you’re a goddess or something. That’s not a bad thing, lady, I’d take a little of that from Kev, I tell you what,” Marcie said.
She grabbed the atomizer filled with ice water, spritzing her face while Muffin licked at the misty air falling down around her. I searched for something to say, I don’t know what, really. After a minute, I drained the last of my beer and set down the empty can with a definitive finish.
“Well, Marcie, it’s like this. I will never top Jake. He was the best I will ever have. My one true love. Everyone else seems like a distant third and not worth my time.”
Marcie listened without interrupting, a particular trait I loved in her, then said with a puzzled look on her face, “Jake? Who’s Jake?”
“I’ve got to pee,” I said, ignoring her question, walking off towards the screened in porch and into the kitchen where her folks were playing a game of gin rummy at the table.
Iced tea in aqua colored melamine tumblers sat resting in a cold sweat. A sandbag ashtray filled with erect, filtered butts, the day’s sports page and stacks of pennies littered the flowered vinyl kitchen tablecloth, a deck of cards holding court squarely at center. It was an image frozen in time for me, one I’d seen so many times before.
“Another beer, hon?” Marcie’s mom offered without looking up, putting a cigarette up to her lips, eyes steady in concentration on her playing hand.
Marcie and I had both turned twenty-two that year but cold cans of anything brewed in St. Louis from her parent’s basement fridge were sanctioned in their home since we were seniors in high school. This question played out as routine. I was another daughter in that household.
So, indeed. Who is Jake?
Maybe I invented him in a moment of desperation that dreadful day after Skizzy’s surprise birthday party. Was an idyllic romance born out of the haze and humiliation of that night? Had the past two years of my life really played out differently while I imagined a better life? What if Jake didn’t even exist? Maybe he was just an invention from the deepest recesses of my heart and soul. I sat on Marcie’s parent’s toilet pondering the possibility of such a grand delusion.
I picked up the June issue of Glamour Magazine at my feet and leafed through it.
“Get Your Best Swimsuit Body in 3 Weeks”
“The Ten Things Men Want to Hear”
“Summer Hairstyles of Your Favorite Celebrities”
“How to Tell When Your First Date is Going Well”
“Dating Tips for Single Mothers”
Good grief. No wonder I’m delusional. What sort of paradigm are we trying to live up to, fit in to?
I was ruined by Feinman, you know? I told you that at the beginning. It was like chasing that first high with cocaine. It’s never going to be like that first hit, that first euphoric moment that you spend the rest of the night trying to recreate. And try as you might, you will fail. No, he was worse than cocaine. Or the best heroin. He wasn’t readily available in pure form anywhere and the alternatives were loathsome: either not potent enough or mixed with who knows what, downright scary and potentially soul numbing.
That is how it felt to date other men after Jake, I’m not exaggerating. The years have passed, and sure, I have had several men in my life. I met a lot of guys at the bar and my friends were always trying to fix me up. There was Marcus. And Mikey. And Tim and Steven. Jerry and Gary and Tommy and Joe. Oh, and Massimo. Massimo Rinaldi. My one attempt at foreign flavor.
He was an Italian from Rome who I met when he came into The International to sell us an espresso machine in the 1980s when it became a thing to have such gadgets in a bar. He was charming and handsome and funny. But volatile. Though he always called it “being passionate.” He took to throwing things, never at me, mind you, I would never go there with anyone ever. I was always bringing him wine glasses from the bar to replenish his home cabinet from his most recent display of unbridled. . .um, passion.
“I havva bottle of Soave for us-a,” he’d say, adding an Italian flourish at the end of his words.
“Come over after work-a. Oh, and bring-a some glasses,” he’d remind me over the phone at the bar when I called him on my break.
I was twenty-five then, he was thirty-one and he was sure he had a thing or two to teach me about real love. Italian style. The inventors of romance.
“We are Romans and we are lovers,” he would proudly state.
We dated for about nine months. I finally had to break it off. Why leave a Latin lover, you might ask?
For one: I just knew he would eventually want me to do all his laundry and all the cooking.
For Two: I was sure his whole family would end up moving in with us at some point. La famiglia loved the idea of America.
And Three: He had that temper and that was never going to change. I mean, you can take the boy out of il paese but you can’t take il paese out of the boy, right?
A year after we broke up, I heard he moved back to Rome and into his parent’s home. So, you see. I was right. He was back with his family AND he found a woman to do all his cooking and cleaning. I guess I dodged that bullet.
The closest I got to tying the knot was with Brian Mason. I was thirty-three then. I’m not a heartbreaker, though I’ve had that word thrown around me like a bad pitch on more than one occasion. Brian was my friend Joanie’s cousin from Maplewood. She invited me to go to one of his adult league softball games one summer evening so we could meet.
He was a handsome guy who kept in shape. He had thick brown hair and kind eyes, a good sense of humor and solid beer drinking skills. Brian hit a ball out of the park that night, knocking it clear over the heads of all the players who watched it sail by in disbelief as if it were a UFO. We all went for pizza at Farotto’s after the game and sitting at a booth together, Brian courted me over cold mugs of Pabst Blue Ribbon on tap. I found out that night that Brian was the middle child of three, had two sisters, Janie and Sarah, both married with kids. He worked in construction, right hand to the foreman, and did pretty well for himself. He had a black lab named Magic and a roommate who was an airline pilot who was rarely at home.
So, I kept an open mind and things went pretty well for a while. He told me he loved me three months into our relationship, on a rainy Sunday afternoon at his apartment. I was cleaning up the breakfast dishes, and he came up behind me and kissed my ear, whispering those three little words every good woman wants to hear. I turned around to face him and just smiled and kissed him on the lips. It would take me longer to get there but I felt like I might. A month later, I returned the phrase every good man wants to hear after morning sex at his apartment, only half-believing it to be true, but feeling like I owed it to him.
It sounds cold, I know, and Brian was great and everything. He just wasn’t Jakob Feinman. But when he proposed to me with a gorgeous ring over dinner at our favorite Italian restaurant three months later, I said yes. Maybe it was all the champagne, because all I could see in my head was Jake asking me to move in with him as those ocean waves crashed below us and the sunset bathed us in eternally warm light.
The sky was the limit that night with Feinman, but on this one? This night with Brian? It felt like a door was closing and limits were all I would have. Jake was infinity. Brian felt like a window shade being drawn to block the glare. Still. I somehow said yes. Who knows why, really.
The next few months we talked a lot about our future together. Well, Brian talked and I listened. He had big plans and he was just so happy I was part of it. Don’t get me wrong, I loved him in my own way but it felt confining to me, a done deal, the end of the road. Somewhere on that road, I was sure, was a detour back to Feinman, if I could only find the right map. At this point, though, I really had no idea where Feinman was.
In Chicago, married, a doctor, was all I had heard. We had lost touch since I’d learned that much about him. How could I continue to cling to that nebulae, that notion of Jake, and let others like Brian slip through the cracks? What was wrong with me? Brian didn’t even seem to notice my remote quality inching slowly to the surface until his mom asked us over brunch if we had set the date yet.
“Oh, no, we’re fine,” I said, piling up potatoes onto my fork, as though I’d been asked if we needed more coffee.
The trajectory of my non-commitment sailed aimlessly over the heads of his parents and sisters, hitting its arc just above the platter of bagels and cream cheese, leaving them all anxiously waiting for something to drop. Somewhere. Definitively.
“What she means is,” Brian stepped in to deftly catch the ball on its descent, “We haven’t set a date yet because we haven’t decided on the venue yet.”
The women’s voices erupted with urgency as they admonished us to “get on that now'” as the good places were booked so far in advance these days, blah, blah, blah. I nodded and smiled and wondered who I was fooling, if not even myself anymore. Brian looked over at me, smiled and winked, though I caught through his lingering gaze, the first hint that he was on to my charade.
What exactly was wrong with this picture of me and Brian, you’re probably wondering? Go ahead, shake your head all you want, plenty of people have.
Well, it’s like this:
Strike One: I wasn’t sure I wanted to have kids at this stage of the game and Brian was ready now. He talked about it often. Our kids. Our family. Won’t it be great when. . .
Strike Two: Magic died the next week. No, I mean the dog. His dog Magic died and it was just too sad. All the things we did, places we went with the dog just felt empty without him. I realized, well, maybe I was more in love with Magic than with Brian. And pretty soon the little bit of magic Brian thought we had, well, it started to die altogether, too.
Things came down to a slow simmer when Brian got serious as we were walking to our car after movie night.
“Well, that was a hard sell! I thought their chemistry didn’t seem believable at all, I mean, really, Hugh Grant and. . .” I started, when Brian suddenly cut me off, stopping to face me on the sidewalk, to ask me point blank where was our relationship going and when exactly were we going to set a date.
I answered with a shrug and said, “Where should it be going? Aren’t things fine the way they are? What’s the rush?” Even though, clearly, something was suspended in the air above us and going nowhere. We weren’t exactly hitting it out of the park of late, not even close.
Our five dates a week slipped into three and by the end of my second beer at the Fourth of July pool party at his sister Janie’s we decided to call it quits. To call the game, as it were. Rained out.
It wasn’t even dark yet as he walked me to my car, well before the big fireworks display. I hadn’t been paying enough attention to Janie’s kids and a bell went off in his head. He simply couldn’t invest any more time in it, he said. He wanted a real commitment that had a real future, he explained. His faith and hope in me had completely fizzled out like a dud firecracker, with a little hiss and a pop. A wisp of smoke.
He closed my car door as I reached towards the ignition with my key and I looked up at him through the rolled down window one last time. He forced a wistful smile and seemed about to say something then just nodded and turned to head across the front lawn back to the party. To his sister and her kids.
Strike three: and I’m out.
After Brian, it was mostly a series of failures. I felt like a child’s security blanket to most men. You know the one your toddler can’t live without, needs all the time. Clings to when fear and doubt bubble up. But how is that blanket treated, really? It’s dragged up the stairs, tossed aside once asleep, dirty and bedraggled and left behind unceremoniously when it’s outgrown. A child never gives to a blanket, only sucks its purpose dry, using it to provide comfort until it’s no longer needed. I was the blanket, yep.
So, usually, I just walked the other way when I sensed another thumb sucker. My radar was pretty good after a couple dates and I couldn’t allow myself to go through all that with yet another guy.
I could be quite decisive, when it came to who was deserving of my time, therefore my life. If a guy made it with me past the six month mark, I would spring the mini inquisition on them, my litmus test for make or break, the genesis of which was with Gary as we were leaving the Botanical Garden one afternoon.
“Hey, Gare. What’s your favorite flower?” I asked to which he responded he didn’t think he had one.
“Well, OK. What’s my favorite flower, then?” I asked nonchalantly.
“I have no idea,” he said with complete disinterest in the question.
“Gerber Daisy,” I informed him bluntly.
“What’s my favorite fruit?” I probed further, again confounding him. “Black Plum,” I announced.
“OK. This one is easy. How about my favorite color, Gare?” I continued on my quest.
He looked at me with an annoyed expression.
“What is this? I don’t know what your favorite color is!” he said, exasperated. “How the hell am I supposed to know that?”
I shook my head. “Gary, Gary, Gary. Can’t you at least guess based on my watercolor paintings. Or what I wear most of the time?” I queried.
He looked me up and down, I was wearing all white that day, poor guy, head to toe. He didn’t have a fighting chance. I was literally a blank canvas. I walked away at that moment, leaving Gary standing nonplussed on the corner of Shaw and Tower Grove with no further explanation. I simply walked away and headed for the Metro 14 bus stop for home. I never saw him again. Granted, Gary wasn’t the most romantic of men, or most handsome. Or the sharpest, wittiest, funniest, or certainly not the most attentive, obviously.
But, three simple questions, Gary. I mean, if you don’t know those basic things about a woman after six months together, where have you been?
Sometimes, the fella of interest ditched me, seeing quite clearly I wasn’t all in for the game. All bets were off quickly, in that case. There was Ray, a sculptor with passion and sensitivity well beyond mine, whose antennae were tuned to a high frequency. On our third date, I was left in the middle of rice and beans. Left sitting in a cute little Mexican cantina halfway through the meal when something I said—or perhaps didn’t say —registered as a red flag to him.
He was telling a story about something and then abruptly stopped, stood up, dropping his napkin to the table and declared, “You’re in love with someone else. Still in love with someone else—someone who hurt you or something. I can feel it.”
Not waiting for my response, he turned on his heel and left. I was stunned at his clairvoyance. And not a little annoyed that he left me to pay the check.
Further in the processes of criteria and elimination, other rules applied. I found myself attracted only to men who resembled Jake in some way, looking the other way if they were blond or blue eyed or too far from that memory of him in my head. Yet, the best of the bunch never held any real promise for me as they all just seemed like impostors of Feinman, ersatz Jakes, a distant third at best. I often felt more alone with them than without them. Sad, really.
It was like the missing sock in the dryer. I could always get another, sure, but would it ever really match?
At thirty-seven, I bought the bar. The International. George, the longtime owner had decided to retire and he made me an offer I couldn’t refuse. Well, I could have but, you know, I had been there so long it felt like I owned the place anyway. After working with the bank on a loan and some other finagling of finances, I managed to have it signed over to me. It was a real education, believe me. Speaking of which, I never did make it to a real art school. Other than a few classes here or there at the junior college, I was mostly self-taught and I’d accepted that and had come to like it that way. I’d stay overnight with my parents after a class and have some time with them, so it worked out pretty nice.
And I went to a weekly drawing group when I could a few blocks from my apartment, which I was now sharing with a young woman from the bar, Marcie long married by then. Yeah, no, my education was life. The ins and outs of the biz, finding my community in the West End, making the best of every situation no matter what. City life, street school. I earned my Art in Bachelors instead of a Bachelors in Art: dodging all those eager single men in pursuit of a wife as artfully as possible, that is. I completed a Masters Degree in Management: juggling all that’s thrown at you day after day surrounded by unruly drunkards and urban insanity.
And, of course, a PhD in Chemistry: how to turn lemons into lemonade.
The bar did well, mostly. People came and went as they do in such a business. Every fall and spring the roster of bartenders and waitresses—we called them servers by then—renewed itself with young folks studying at Wash U and SLU. They infused the place with a new energy and a sense of new beginnings, which I loved. It reminded me of the early days with Pauletta and Marcie and the whole gang when we were just getting our toehold. That family of friends still got together once in a while. For St. Pat’s day. Or someone’s birthday.
But now things were constantly changing. Long time regulars got old and faded away. Medical interns advancing in their careers got jobs in other hospitals. Students moved to new cities for grad school. Or bought houses and raised families in the suburbs and forgot about us, a chapter ended. I liked the revolving door, though, the ever-changing cast of characters made life rich and unpredictable. It was never boring around that place, that’s for sure.
A guy walks into a bar. . .No, wait, let me start again and put it into better context for you. I’m sixty-four now and a stale joke is not the way to go with the end of this story. Or is it just the beginning?
Time is a funny thing, ya know? Not always linear in our memories. The way we piece our lives together, it’s more of a patchwork, really. So. I never got married and I may have disappointed a few people. But some of us just aren’t made for that life.
I sold the bar three years ago, which gave me a nice nest egg. And I still do the bookkeeping for the place. The bar got renovated by the new owners, a hip, young couple from DC. Guess they felt the need for a face-lift on that old place. They put in a second bar in the back room, replaced the worn-out vinyl booths with rustic wood communal tables. Very urban chic, you know. French country. Changed the name, too. It’s called The Sweetwater, now.
I suppose it’s the end of an era for me and a lot of people in the neighborhood, but that’s life, right?
I love the time I have now to work on my art, showing paintings in local galleries and retail spaces around the city. That’s the benefit of the bar and all the people I came to know over the years. People will go out of their way to help you out when you’ve forged relationships over time and a pint or two. And they seem to genuinely like my work. I sell a painting now and again, which is really nice, too. Validating.
So, right now? I’m on a train to New York City for a week as I do every June to go gallery hopping, take in a theater show and to visit some dear, old friends who once worked at The International in the 90s. The train is starting to slow down to a gentle, hypnotic pace. I’m lost in a distant reverie, feeling the words of the song playing in the air. Or is it just playing in my mind? My soul?
Dixie Chicks. “Lullaby.” You know it?
I always loved the words to that song, so sweet, really. . .I hum along.
They didn’t have you where I come from
Never knew the best was yet to come
Life began when I saw your face
And I hear your laugh like a serenade
How long do you want to be loved?
Is forever enough, is forever enough?
How long do you want to be loved?
Is forever enough
Cause I’m never, never giving you up
The train has slowed to a stop now and I hear the conductor over the loudspeaker:
“Chicago, folks. Chicago. Union Station. We’ll be pausing here for about ten minutes.”
I’m sitting in the crowded dining/bar car, having a cheese plate with some melon and a glass of chardonnay, fully immersed in my gustatory indulgence amid the din of others chatting around me; people boarding, others gathering up their things having reached their destination. A revolving door of lives in transition.
Suddenly, I hear a voice asking me a question.
“Is this seat taken? May I join you?”
I look up and my eyes meet the face of a handsome man of my age standing above me, leaning in close to let others get by him in the aisle. My mouth is half full of cracker and Havarti, so I nod and extend my hand towards the seat across from me with a little wave.
We begin to trade small talk and I can see he doesn’t want to just sit quietly nodding off to the sound of the rails, he wants connection. He’s a garrulous one, this one, I think to myself as he tells me all about his years of being a pediatrician. Married with four grown kids, divorced.
“She was never the right woman for me—only in theory, how my family wanted it. A girl from a good family, same background, you know—same values.”
I nod, silent but attentive, swallowing the last of my chardonnay.
“We went to high school together,” he continues, eager to share it all with me.
“She always wanted to be a famous actress, her uncle’s in show biz, kind of famous—you might have heard of him. . .but, no, she gave up her career to raise the kids. She probably blames me for getting in the way of all that. Her dreams. And. You know. Sometimes I think. . .”
He paused for a moment, staring off into space. Then he looked over at me, right in the eye.
“Well, you know what they say, you always wonder about the one that got away,” he said, squinting, searching my face for understanding.
“Well, things seldom turn out how we expect them to,” I say to him.
I realize I am revealing very little about my own life to this stranger, speaking in generalities, dwelling safely in the gray area. Listening mostly. Content to just receive. After a while, though, I begin to feel a resonance with this man, he’s getting under my skin just listening to his voice. His story. Something shifts in a split second, internally.
Like being suddenly stirred awake from a deep sleep after a long night of drink. You know, after the kind of night we’ve all had at one time or another.
My mouth is a bit dry. My eyes, too, devoid of moisture. I blink a few times, realizing just how supremely dry they are and my mouth even dryer and a sense of urgency is doubling back, waiting for me to catch up to it.
“It’s feeling a little warm in here,” I say, as I begin to remove my cardigan sweater.
He reaches over to help with my sleeve. As I’m leaning forward to receive his assist, my ruby necklace swings forward a bit and catches the light. And his eye.
I sit back.
“That’s an unusual and beautiful necklace you’re wearing,” he says.
I press my hand to the ruby, hold it in my palm for a few seconds as I’ve done a million times, then position it against my heart and tell him, yes, it is. I tell him it was a gift from long ago. That I have worn it every day since the day I got it.
He looks at me, nods and says, “I bet someone who loves you very much gave it to you.” He looks at it again. “Is that a ruby?”
I tilt my head to the left.
“Yes. Yes, it is. Just like my name. I’m Ruby,” I say, extending my hand to him realizing we hadn’t yet properly introduced ourselves.
He places his warm hand into my palm. We were held in that moment in time, like God’s thumb was pressing on a larger-than-life TV remote suspending us in a freeze frame. A screen capture of us staring infinitely into each other.
Is this happening now or is it a fragment on a wheel of life? Block universe.
As if to break the trance, he speaks.
“Let’s have a glass of something.”
All I can do is nod. He calls a waiter over and orders us two glasses of champagne.
“It’s always a good day for champagne,” he says with a laugh.
And honestly, we just sat in silence then as we waited for the waiter to return. Not an awkward silence, mind you, but one that sort of blanketed us in a familiar comfort, well, like a perfectly cool breeze that glides across you on a summer afternoon as you drive around Lake Michigan. I thought I could even hear birds chirping.
The champagne arrived and we lifted our glasses to each other.
“It’s a good life,” he said.
And I agreed.
© 2017, Mary Corbin.
Chasing Feinman is from the “Life Lines” collection. Featured artwork: “Cards on the Table #1” – painting by Mary Corbin. No reprints without permission.