Good. Her car is not in the garage. She must have had to work overtime.
Rafi parked his car across the street from the smallest house on Euclid Heights Blvd. For the first Valentine’s Day after he moved in with her, he bought her a dozen roses. A dozen bare-root roses. Jackson and Perkins had shipped them in two waist-deep boxes. Four weeks later, the parcels arrived on Thursday afternoon, one at a time, totally obscuring a delivery driver. Margie was at work, and Rafi was at the keyboard – with the TV on to Wake Forest vs. North Carolina – NC A &T, that is – and the radio tuned to the Cleveland Indians pre-season exhibition game. Sprawled out over the coffee table were three years of Margie’s back tax records, so she could finally collect her refunds, so Rafi’s use of the keyboard was as much for a writing surface as for a pitch source. Rafi had bought the cheesy cherry-red wrapping paper with the “Happy Valentine’s Day” hearts. He wrapped the boxes and applied the pink bowtie.
Now, it was five years later, and the roses were glorious – from Mr. Lincoln red to Peace white to Golden Showers sunshine yellow doubles. A three-dimensional kidney-shaped hill rose from the center of the lawn, with its contours shaped further by a shock of coreopsis interwoven with spears of iridescent navy-blue liatris. Various other flowers, selected for their thin, churchlike form, rose up like chaste fireworks out of the sedum that held the topsoil onto the clay foundation. Trim rows of baptisia and astilbe trimmed the sides of the little garden – power pinstripe meets psychedelic tie-dye. All that was wrong was that Margie, who had extremely light skin, had not been out to weed in far too long. Rafi headed to the garage and found the canvas sheet that he used for collecting weeds and clippings where he had left it two years before.
You never were the pushy one with the women. All the other boys, as soon as we could see the Tzaha”l on the horizon, would start posturing like peacocks. The girls would become ashamed even going near those guys. In the army? Hui, just like the old song says, “Go out and check out the soldiers from our farm, girls! Don’t hide yourselves from the soldier boys, the men of the army.” I don’t know if my dad was born when that was written. Me? Ha. I only got the ones that ran from our soldiers of the farm. Now I let this one pick me and here I am, about to pay the price. How should I have handled myself? What should I have done? Not gone on that first date? Not made out? Not moved in? I would have had to move in with somebody, why not her? Damn. Garab.
The weed pile mounted between the rose garden and the architectural mound. As the sun’s rays grew increasingly direct, Rafi’s skin pleaded for release from under his sweat-soaked shirt.
Ok, Rafi, focus. She’s a good person, but she refused help when the med school offered it. You kept telling her to stop the TV and the ice cream. She didn’t listen. (Damn, how I begged her. She nearly took my head off.) You couldn’t have done anything else; she was a slow-motion train wreck. And how could she have not seen this happening to herself anyway? What wag said that quote about the three invisible things – the air to the bird, the water to the fish, and his life to the man?
Yeah, what do I look right at? Am I such a good man – and would I do so much better if I strike out to go after fame and fortune – or at least a musical career? Oh, that – I can just see it now – the cantor, if I can’t become a legit opera singer, has to cancel a rehearsal because he has to get the children at Vacation Bible School? “Jesus love me, yes he do, Jesus love me, with a love that’s true.” Choke me. I don’t get it. I’m sorry. I can’t live that way.
Rafi moved forward to the eastern tie-dyed row. He was almost done weeding. She wasn’t back.
But what about her? She gave up a job for a dream. Then her dream was stolen. How can she recover? What can she do? Can she crawl back to the hospital, tail between her legs, and beg for her old job back? How can she recover? And what about the depression?
Will someone teach me how to have my own life and not be responsible for the whole world? If any normal person saw that he was on a train that was going to crash, he’d get the hell off the train, right? Don’t I get to be normal? I’m not her Jesus, I’m a man, and her train was going to derail with or without me in a crewman’s seat.
Just then, Margie pulled into her driveway. She stumbled out of the car, swinging her legs in her hospital scrubs out of the driver’s seat, and with all her psychological pain wobbling in its physical manifestation, reached her enormous arms to Rafi.
“But I’m a mess.”
“I don’t care.”
Rafi did not think that this was THE MOMENT. So he returned the hug. It didn’t register with Margie that she had never seen Rafi with a shirt on in the bright sunshine if there wasn’t a penalty to be paid.
“Get out of the sun, Margie. I’ll be done in ten minutes.”
“OK, Rafi, I’ll make iced tea.”
The last time I was in her kitchen, the linoleum was curling, there were weeks’ worth of dishes in the sink, the refrigerator was a graveyard for heaven-knows-what, and I have no idea what will happen when this tea comes out. And she hasn’t lost an ounce. I hope she doesn’t offer me ice cream.
Rafi wrapped up the canvas that held the weeds. Slinging the parcel over his back, he headed around to the backyard where the strawberry pyramid grew, and emptied the waste product of the war of the roses into the compost bin. He returned the canvas sheet to its resting place in the garage. Just before trudging up the steps to the little house, he thought twice and crossed the street. The keys sat edgily in his right pocket. He took them out and opened the driver’s door. His gym bag was on the passenger’s seat. Out came a plain T-shirt. Off peeled the drenched yellow second skin. Having switched tops, Rafi returned to the bungalow.
“Did you have to work today?”
“No. I was at the Intro to Judaism class at Beth Shalom.”
“They’re mostly women, engaged to or going with Jewish men.”
“Were their guys there?”
“No, not many. There are about thirteen of us in the classroom, and only five guys; two in the class and three BFs.”
“How are you finding it? Is it worth your time?”
“ Rafi, just like I brought you closer to the farm, you brought me closer to Judaism After growing up on a kibbutz, you probably never thought you’d have anything to do with farming ever again, and here you are, weeding a hundred different species of flowers and vegetables. And I might never become Jewish, but at least I know they don’t have horns.”
“Funny – I think the people in Fredonia sensed I was different – a lot – before I turned to them to say anything.”
“I think they noticed your skin color. Maybe they thought you were a Muslim. The closest mosque is in Dayton. My brother says you should open up a kosher butcher shop – you’d have no competition.”
“I’d have no customers.”
“Right. Minor problem.”
The carpet, if it could be called that, parted in two nearly stony pathways: one straight ahead, past the keyboard, the hall, the bathroom, and the bedroom, and one branching to the left, past the TV to the sofa that Margie and Rafi had bought when they lived together. The sofa where Margie slept, indecent, with a remote control clutched in her pillow-like right hand and a half-gallon of ice cream empty at her side. Sometimes, Rafi’s cat Kinneret curled up on Margie’s stomach; sometimes on the back of the sofa. Rafi still had pictures of his golden Angora cat highlighting the fine threads in the olive upholstery. The sofa was quality – no permanent impressions had been left by Margie’s sprawled out form. No cat hair remained either, a near miracle. Margie was drowning in depression and clutter, but she managed some of the big cleaning jobs by turning on the adrenaline when family was in town for a visit. All the clutter would wind up in laundry baskets in the basement.
Margie headed into the kitchen. The linoleum was still curled up, with chunks torn out, because of a sprinkler accident four years ago. Connecting to the hose was easy; the dry rot was the hard part. I learned not to take anything in this house at face value.
Margie was babbling as she yanked the pitcher of tea out of the freezer. The clinking of ice cubes punctuated her narrative – was it Fredonia, or Lake Wobegon? It made the same impact. Rafi hated Garrison Keillor. Rafi lurked around the fork in the carpet. To the sofa? The chairs across from the pile on the coffee table? To the kitchen? Stand here and wait? Was this tea made this morning – last week? Hell. Garab. I can’t even hear her words for the echoes between my eardrums.
The chair near the phono. I dubbed a huge collection of records that WCPN was selling off, and it looks like she left the chair empty in my memory. Why in hell else is there no crap on it?
Margie crossed into the living room and set the glasses of tea down on the smallest pile of glossy magazines. She ripped her shirt and bra off, and kicked away her flip-flops, but there was nothing sexual about the gesture. Don’t go for your shorts. Please. Please.
There was nothing else to do.
The victim looked up and froze, in the same moment.
“I’m leaving you.”