The apartment had little by way of natural light, and it was small, cramped even before I put in furniture. For a moment, I thought about the bedroom I’d shared with Leah and considered the real possibility that it was bigger than the space that was about to become my new residence. Thinking about it for too long was a sure way to let despair in, though, so I put that aside and concentrated on the positive aspects.
To start, it was scrupulously clean, and I wondered who scrubbed the place down. The landlord seemed indifferent to his property when we met three weeks earlier, but maybe his wife cared enough to want to make an impression on their new tenant. No matter the reason, it was a kindness, one I hadn’t been expecting from a stranger. The apartment also boasted bookshelves along every available inch of wall space. I’d been told there would be “some” bookshelves, but I was ready to count myself lucky if that turned out to be two small shelves in the bathroom. Instead, it looked like I would be able to have at least half my library with me there, while the other half would be somewhere, I just didn’t know where anymore. Until I saw the flat, I thought I would have to sell them off, but I was left in the happy position of being able to keep quite a few more than I originally thought possible.
I wondered if I could sort through them at the Community Center. It wasn’t open yet, and it would give me time to sort through them without having to make a hasty decision. The timing was Leah’s choice – she wanted my books out of our house as soon as possible. I think her reasoning was that it would allow her to forget my existence all the sooner. I wasn’t sure how well that would work, given that she had sole custody of our children, but if anyone could manage that trick, I felt certain Leah could. She was always good at not seeing what was right in front of her until she couldn’t avoid it any longer.
It was a bitter thought, and it was one I needed to set aside if I was to be able to live with myself.
Mr. Giovanni coughed behind me, and I realized I’d stood too long without saying anything. It was turning into a habit I didn’t care for, and I knew I would need to be more vigilant in the future if I was to stop drifting off into unhappy memories. I turned and smiled at him, saying, “This is fine, very clean. I’ll have plenty of room for my books here.”
He shrugged, embarrassed at the compliment, small though it was. “You a man of God. Should have better than this.”
I was touched and a little surprised. I didn’t know too many Catholics who were willing to honor rabbis the same way they honored their own priests. Then again, he lived in a predominately Jewish neighborhood, so maybe he’d learned some acceptance.
“This is fine,” I repeated. “It’s warm and dry, and that’s all I really need.”
“Yeah, well.” He paused, then blurted out, “My wife, she keeps Shabbat. She says you come down for the meal on Friday.”
“I – You’re Jewish?”
“She is,” he said, clearly uncomfortable with the conversation and just as clearly determined to tell me the rest of it. “I go to Mass. Father Joseph, he doesn’t give me a hard time about converting her like the rest of ‘em do.”
“That’s good,” I told him, not knowing what else I could say. The sad truth was that a year ago, I probably would have turned my back on Mrs. Giovanni for marrying a gentile, so I didn’t exactly have any kind of moral ground to stand on when it came to passing judgment on those unnamed priests. “It’s good that Father Joseph treats you so well.”
Mr. Giovanni shrugged and looked out the window. There wasn’t much to see – just the side of the building across the alleyway – but he didn’t have to see me, and maybe that was the point. It was embarrassing to share your life with a relative stranger, no matter how necessary it was at times.
In an effort to alleviate the tension, I said, “Please tell Mrs. Giovanni I’ll be happy to eat with you.”
He looked at me directly for the first time and smiled. “Good. She’ll be happy. The rabbi, he don’t talk to her. None of ‘em do.” Mr. Giovanni turned to leave, and when he opened the door, he added, “She worries, you know. Worries our boys don’t know enough to be good Jews.”
Impulse made me answer, “I’ll work with your children, if you want. Teach them.”
At that, he looked back at me and said, “Like I said, you a good man, Rabbi,” before leaving at last.
The Community Center was new, but the building that housed it was built sometime in the last century. I thought that might also be the last time anyone had done any kind of maintenance on it, because it looked like it was falling apart in front of me. It was a little better inside, but not by much. The walls, at least, were intact, but they needed to be cleaned at the very least. They also needed to be painted, but I’d already looked at the operating budget and knew I’d be lucky to get paid through the end of my contract if we weren’t able to find more donors.
While I was pretty good at raising money, the divorce meant I was cut off from the people I might normally talk to. Leah probably hadn’t said anything about the reasons for our split even though she didn’t stand to lose nearly as much as I did if word got out. She wasn’t fond of gossip to begin with, and our divorce was a seven-day wonder in our world. But the gossip died down relatively quickly without details to keep it going, so if she spoke, it would all flare up again, and it would take even longer to end. Anyway, though Leah probably hadn’t said anything, the fact I moved out meant it would be correctly assumed that I was the cause of our marriage ending, and based on that alone, I was unlikely to find a sympathetic ear when it came to raising money.
After all, charity only went so far when it came to a man who broke his vows.
Avi Rosenburg stood in a doorway at the end of the hall and waved me forward. “Come, come. I know it’s not much, but we have plenty of children in the neighborhood who can use a scrub brush. Give them a week, and in no time, it will look better. Have you settled into your new home?”
I didn’t object to his use of the word “home,” though I wanted to. Home was what I’d had with Leah and Daniel and Rivka. Home was the circle of friends who’d turned their backs to me once news of the divorce was made public. Home was the congregation that spoke with a unanimous voice when it told me I could no longer be their rabbi. Home was everything I’d lost and nothing I’d gained, and I was still too deep in grief for a future that was destroyed to be happy using “home” to describe the two rooms into which the wreck of my life was crammed.
Apparently none of this pain showed on my face or in my voice, because Mr. Rosenburg nodded and smiled pleasantly when I said, “I’m getting there, but I have quite a few books to sort through to decide what I won’t be able to keep. Would it be all right if I divided them here?”
“Oh, sure. You’re in charge here, you can decide what’s okay and what’s not.”
“Got a lot of books, then?”
“Far more than I have space for,” I said.
“You know, your office has shelves. Maybe you keep some of them here. In fact, I think you should do exactly that. It will reassure everyone about you.”
That jolted me out of the maudlin turn my thoughts had taken, and I asked, “People aren’t happy that I was hired?”
“No, no, it’s not that,” he said, a bit too quickly to be wholly truthful. “It’s that they don’t know you the way they’d know someone who came from around here.”
“They wanted someone from the neighborhood? But why –”
From behind me, I heard, “That was my fault, I’m afraid.”
I turned quickly, thinking I couldn’t possibly know who spoke, and found that apparently, I could recognize a voice I hadn’t heard in nearly ten years.
His smile was broad and welcoming, and he said, “Hello, Reuven. It’s good to see you.”
After Mr. Rosenburg finished walking us through the building – a tour that was more wish list than anything else – he handed me the keys and wished me the best of luck. He was gone before I could ask for an appointment to meet with the Board of Directors, and Danny, upon hearing my complaint, said, “It’s not difficult to get in touch with them, and Avi really did need to leave. Tuesday afternoons, he has to take over the cash register from his wife.”
“Oh,” I said, deflated and defeated.
Danny clasped my shoulder and said, “There’s a little diner just a few blocks away. We can talk there, maybe get something to eat.”
“A diner?” I was reluctant, especially since it was in the neighborhood. It was bad enough that I was already the source of some discord, and I didn’t want it to get worse based on an overheard conversation. I preferred to stay at the Center to talk, but my stomach growled, a reminder that I’d skipped breakfast that morning in favor of learning a bit more about my new neighborhood.
“It’s quiet, this time of morning, and the waitress doesn’t gossip.”
“Yeah. Fine,” I said, still unhappy despite his assurances. I was no longer comfortable talking to someone out in public, thanks to the scrutiny I’d suffered after I moved out, and I wasn’t entirely certain I trusted Danny’s judgment. Still, I was hungry, and if Danny ate there, it couldn’t be too bad.
The diner was less than ten minutes from the Community Center, and the food was cheap enough that I thought I might be able to treat myself to lunch there on occasion. I was in a little better shape financially than I expected, because Mr. Giovanni told me he would reduce my rent by a few dollars as a way to repay me for teaching his sons. Although they were barely literate in English, the two Hebrew lessons I'd given showed me that the boys had potential that wasn't being realized. I told their parents as much, and I also told them I thought the lessons might help them do better overall. The Giovannis were skeptical, but Mrs. Giovanni was too grateful that I was working with her children to express it. I was sure the family would see positive results fairly soon, so I didn't spend time trying to convince either parent. And regardless of potential scholastic success, I was genuinely happy to be working with boys again, and I was grateful beyond measure that I’d landed in the one apartment building that could give me this satisfaction.
When we reached the diner, Danny led the way to a back corner that was as far from the kitchen as possible, and he ordered tea to start, saying, “The food isn’t Kosher, so I don’t know if you’ll be willing to eat here or not.”
Once, I would have barely touched the water in such a place, but one of the lessons I’d learned since moving out was that food was food, and that a man with limited options had to have faith that voluntary starvation wasn’t in God’s plan for anyone. I told Danny that, and he said, “Good. You should try the soup, then. The chicken is good, but the vegetable is better.”
Our conversation was desultory and quiet, perhaps because there was too much left unspoken on both our parts. I didn’t know why he wasn’t saying much, but for me, my reticence was rooted in fear. I was firmly of the opinion that one shouldn’t ask a question unless prepared to hear the answer, and it might be another ten or even twenty years before I was ready to hear what he had to say. At the same time, he was sitting right there, and I doubted I would be able to avoid hearing what Danny had to say for very much longer.
Once the food arrived, we didn’t speak again until after the waitress left our check. By that time, we’d finished the soup, which was as good as Danny promised, and I was left with the realization that Danny wasn’t willing to volunteer information of any sort, let alone what he thought of me. I probably should have been glad of the reprieve, but I wasn’t, my fears notwithstanding. Since I still wasn’t quite ready to ask the real question, I asked an easier one.
“At the Center, you said it was your fault,” I began. “Did you mean me being hired?”
“Yes,” he said. “When they first spoke of setting up a community center, the Board asked if I would be willing to run it for them, but I had to say no. They asked for a recommendation, and I gave them your name.”
I stared at him, thinking of nearly ten years of silence, ten years of wondering if he would ever forgive me, and decided there would never be a better moment for me to ask, “Why? After I – you – I don’t understand. It doesn’t make sense.”
For the first time that morning, Danny didn’t meet my eyes. He looked down at the table and fiddled with the spoon before saying, “I heard what happened.”
My heart started racing, and I had to breathe deeply before reminding myself that he meant the divorce, that was all. He couldn’t possibly know anything else, because none of us was talking about it.
I found my voice and said, “The divorce,” as if he couldn’t possibly be talking about anything else.
He looked up at me then and nodded. “And the synagogue. I knew that with your experience, you could get the Center off to the best possible start, and that’s what I told the Board.”
“But –” We hadn’t spoken since just before Daniel was born, and that was my fault, my mistake. I’d always assumed Danny made a clean cut of our friendship, but that couldn’t be right, not if he knew about Leah and the synagogue.
“I never stopped caring, Reuven,” he said, his eyes filled with the same fondness I remembered from the earliest days of our friendship. “Never. No matter what else happened, I never stopped caring, and I never stopped being interested your life.”
My life. Not me.
The pain of that was about what I expected, but that didn’t mean it was anymore tolerable. I reached into my pocket and pulled out a dollar for lunch and left it on the table. “I appreciate your thoughtfulness. But I have to get back to the Center.”
Danny called out for me, but I didn’t slow down. Apparently, I was forgiven, but nothing more than that.
It was another three weeks before I saw Danny again. This time, he stopped in just before my office hours ended, so I didn’t even have the excuse of work to keep from talking to him. It was hard, letting go of that last hope, and I was almost as bitter over that as I was over Leah telling me that if I attempted to assert my visitation rights, she would go back to the judge to explain in great detail the reason we divorced. If she did that, I wouldn’t be able to remain in the city, and there was a strong chance I’d never work as a rabbi again. At least this way, I could hope that I might find a congregation in the future that was willing to overlook the divorce.
As for Danny, I couldn’t blame anyone but me. Somewhere along the line, I’d managed to convince myself that Danny walked away because I was married, that he loved me the way I loved him, but he took my vows far more seriously than I did. Certainly, if I'd taken those vows as seriously as I should have, Leah wouldn't have found me kissing a man whose name I couldn't even remember three weeks after the fact. In hindsight, I wanted her to catch me, to open her eyes to the fact that our marriage was as flimsy as tissue paper and half as strong. Throughout that long year of separation and negotiating the divorce settlement, a part of me hoped that one day I would be able to walk up to Danny as a free man and find what I’d been looking for all along. Having reality intrude on that dream was extremely difficult, no matter that I could see it was also necessary.
Still, that didn’t stop me from wishing Danny had given me more time before showing up in my office. I didn’t want his pity, and that was the only thing I could see him willing to offer. I asked him to take a seat in my office while I went to lock up, and I wasn’t terribly surprised to find him perusing my shelves instead. He turned around when I entered and sighed.
“I’ve spent the last three weeks trying to understand why you left the diner so quickly, and I’ve come to the conclusion that no matter how many psychology journals I read, no matter how many studies I conduct, and no matter how many patients I interview, I will never understand people.”
It was enough to startle a laugh out of me, and Danny gave me a rueful smile in return. “You didn’t hear what I was trying to say, Reuven, that much I know. What I don’t know is what you did hear.”
“Does it really matter?” I wasn’t convinced it did. I couldn’t have what I wanted, but I could have what Danny was willing to offer – his friendship – and I thought that would be enough to assuage my loneliness in this new life of mine.
“It does when I hurt you.” After a pause, he added, “Again.”
I shook my head. “It’s my problem, not yours.”
“A problem shared is a problem halved,” he said with a hint of mischief in his voice.
Suddenly, I felt like I was sixteen and absolutely besotted with a grave looking boy who had a wicked and well-hidden sense of humor. If I wasn’t careful, Danny would break my heart again, and as before, it would be entirely my fault.
“And actually, I was talking about my problem, not yours.” For a moment, I saw an echo of Reb Saunders, and then Danny face softened as he stared at me. “I’ve been studying love, Reuven, trying to understand why people love whom they love. Do you think I’ve been successful?”
“No.” I answered immediately and without thought, because no matter how brilliant Danny was, he would never understand human emotion unless he experienced it firsthand. The fact that he thought he could study love from a scientific point of view told me he hadn’t yet experienced the utter confusion and chaos of being in love.
“That’s what I’ve always liked about you – your honesty. You’re right, by the way. I don’t understand why people love as they do. But I think I now understand something that’s far more important.”
I supposed I was happy for him, but I didn’t know why we were talking about this. “What’s that?”
“That people love.” He must have seen my confusion, because he added, “Yes, I know it seems obvious, but for me, it’s a radical change in my approach. I’m no longer trying to understand the why of it, because I don’t have to.”
“I still don’t understand.”
Danny stepped toward me, stopping only a few inches away. I couldn’t recall him ever voluntarily standing this close to anyone, let alone me, and I was about to move back, but he clasped my hands and kept me there as he stared at me. I caught a faint whiff of chalk blended with something bitter – coffee, perhaps – and his hands on mine were strong and warm.
He leaned forward a little more and said, “It means that this time, when we kiss, I won’t go running off to my books to try to make sense of it.”
My mouth felt numb, barely capable of forming words, yet I couldn’t help but ask, “Do you promise?”
“I promise,” he whispered.
It couldn’t have taken more than a few seconds for us to lean close together for that second kiss, though at the time, it seemed much longer. And when our lips met, I expected some kind of cataclysm to befall us both, but all that happened was that I found out his lips were softer than they looked and that he still hadn’t learned how to kiss. Judging by the stiff way he held his mouth and jaw, I could only conclude that everything he knew about kissing was learned from watching movies. If that was the case, if he were truly that removed from society, I wasn’t entirely sure that I could accept what he was offering.
Still, when he drew back, dissatisfied with the experience, I couldn’t help but cup his cheek to bring him close. Evidently, my heart was quite willing to overrule my mind in this matter, and it was a surprise to learn that yes, I could be this demanding. With Leah, I had been gentle and hesitant, unwilling to overwhelm her with my baser desires. With Danny, I felt no real compunction about indulging myself and was quite ready to overwhelm him to whatever extent possible, if it meant he could just feel love the way I experienced it whenever I saw him or thought about him.
Before I brought him close enough to kiss once more, I said quietly, “Relax your mouth.”
If I were a poet, I could no doubt wax eloquent over the way Danny slowly learned how a proper kiss worked, how the small noises he made were music to my ears, how his response was all I could have hoped for and more. I couldn’t, though, because while these things were true, I was too lost in the pure physical pleasure of being intimate with Danny when I’d given up all hope that this could ever happen. Want and need complemented the all-consuming love I felt for him, and I knew that if I didn’t step back soon, Danny would have an experience of physical love that would feel cheap and base at best.
“Danny,” I murmured.
“More,” he said. His eyes were closed as he tried to kiss me.
“Shh.” I took a deep breath and a step backward, and it was enough for Danny to open his eyes.
“This isn’t the time or the place.” Honesty had me adding, “And we aren’t the same men we were ten years ago.”
“I don’t understand.”
I heard a hint of fear in his voice, and I brought his hand up to drop a kiss on the knuckle. “I want us to get to know each other again, to learn who we’ve become.”
A strange light came into his eye, and after another moment, he gave me a somewhat gleeful smile. “You want us to court one another.”
The objection never left my tongue, though I wanted it to. Courting, I thought, was for men and women, not for two men, but as I considered it, I realized Danny was right.
“Yes, I suppose it's accurate to call it that. We can’t – we can’t acknowledge each other the way we would a wife, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t respect each other that way. Do you see?”
“Yes, I do,” he said, his face lighting up with the broadest smile I’d ever seen.
I knew it wouldn’t be easy, but with Danny finally willing to accept my heart, I no longer felt like an exile. Instead, I thought I might find home again at last.