by Nina Badzin
Jared Glick tightened the purple tie his wife, Holly, chose for the Chicago History Museum fundraiser. Why he agreed to spend his fortieth birthday at another one of Holly’s committee-planned soirees was beyond him. His mother, of course, was disappointed they wouldn’t spend his birthday as a family. You can still come to the fundraiser, he’d reminded her. But she’d refused to join them, put off by the high price of an event that didn’t benefit a Jewish cause.
We all benefit from museums, he’d futilely reminded her. Ever since he married Holly twelve years earlier, his mother’s dedication to Jewish charities had doubled. To make up for your kids’ monogrammed Christmas stockings, Jared’s brother, Aaron, once joked. You guys are anti-non-Semitic, Jared once accused Aaron and their mother. They denied it, claiming they were anti-ice-princess—Jewish or otherwise. Jared had to admit Holly wasn’t the warmest woman in the world, but she wasn’t cold either. Room temperature, he supposed. She gave her opinion on next to nothing as if she didn’t care one way or another about his life or anyone else’s.
On the way to the museum, for example, Jared reflected aloud on how to improve his life, while Holly, in the passenger seat, texted her friends. He knew he should lose weight, he said, make more money, and spend more time with their six-year-old son. Yet Holly refused to agree or disagree. It’s your life, she said, which confused him since he thought the point of marriage was sharing a life. But thirty minutes into the museum event, he saw her flirting with the son of her parents’ friend—some guy named Billy he and Holly kept “randomly” seeing at fundraisers. It all made sense now, the increase in charity events. Or maybe he was being paranoid. Either way, he needed a drink.
Rachel Gershman needed a drink, too. Her husband Brett, the newest member of the accounting team who handled the Chicago History Museum’s finances, insisted they attend the fundraiser together. Normally she’d send him alone to a work event, but she’d recently finished breastfeeding her ten-month-old son and wanted a night out.
“The elusive Rachel Weiss.”
She turned around, surprised to see Jared Glick, an old summer boyfriend, the one-time love of her two summers as a counselor at an overnight camp in Wisconsin. They’d imagine moving to New York together after college, of naming their two kids Ilan and Yael.
Raising an eyebrow, she didn’t smile. “It’s Gershman now.”
“I knew that.”
She took her Pinot Grigio from the bartender and waited for Jared to order, wondering what a grown-up version of Jared Glick liked to drink other than a fake-ID-procured Bud Light guzzled on a blanket in the North Woods.
He ordered a gin and tonic then stared at her. “So you married a Jew. Good for you.”
“Good for me?”
“Yeah, good for you. I’m starting to think all that marry-your-own-kind advice they fed us at camp wasn’t total crap. My wife thinks I’m a pain in the ass.”
She looked him up and down, noting his receding hairline and extra thirty pounds. She remembered his summer allergies and how he couldn’t kiss for more than twelve seconds at a time without losing his breath.
“Maybe you are a pain in the ass,” she said.
She watched him look uncomfortable, but she refused to say more.
“You have kids?” he asked.
“Three. All boys.” She looked around for Brett, but didn’t see him.
“We’ve got one, too. A boy, I mean.”
Not wanting to engage him in more conversation than necessary, she only nodded. Was he really going to pretend like they’d spoken even once since he decided not to transfer to the University of Michigan to be with her? Twenty years had passed, but he couldn’t expect her to forget.
“He’s circumcised,” Jared said.
She tried to stifle a smile. “Mazel tov, I guess.”
“It was done by a pediatrician at the hospital, but that still counts. Right? Like he’s part of the Covenant and all that?”
If she were a nicer person, she’d lie, put him at ease. Instead she said, “I doubt it.”
Jared could see that Rachel found him pathetic. He needed a new topic. Why was he talking about his son’s penis? He followed her eyes darting over his shoulder, looking for her husband or a friend or someone else to talk to instead of the asshole that ended their relationship without an explanation. Even now he couldn’t remember why he’d changed his mind about her. He was nineteen years old, and she’d wanted him to make such a big commitment. He wasn’t ready then. He could hardly choose a major let alone stay that serious with his summer girlfriend.
“Why elusive?” she asked.
“You called me ‘the elusive Rachel Weiss.’ ”
Jared was too humiliated to remind her she’d ignored his friend request on Facebook.
“Because I never run into you,” he said.
When he saw Rachel adjusting her purse under her arm and getting ready to step away, he put his hand on her elbow. Not wanting her to leave, he steered her towards the first exhibit room.
“Let’s explore the place together,” he said. “I might never run into you again.”
Rachel felt Jared’s fingers around her elbow and remembered how he’d tickle her arm for an hour while they talked on the camp’s south field under the stars. As if in a daze, she let him lead her to the exhibit called Chicago Fashion Through Time.
They stopped in front of a simple, long-sleeved wedding gown from 1880. She studied the information on the plaque, acting as if she’d lost interest in Jared who stood behind her peering over her shoulder. She’d forgotten how tall he was, at least compared to every man she dated after him, concluding with Brett, her husband—the shortest of them all.
“Look at this,” she said when she stopped in front of another gown from a century later. “There’s more material on the one from 1980 than 1880. I would have thought the opposite.”
“Fascinating,” he said. He stood behind her again, this time putting his hand on her arm and turning her around.
“What are you doing?”
He backed away. “Nothing. Let’s check out the children’s area. It’s the best thing here.”
Jared wondered if she knew it was his birthday. Of course he risked sounding like the most narcissistic person in the world if he called her out on it. Why should Rachel Weiss, Rachel Gershman, whatever, remember his birthday?
“Check this out,” he said when they arrived at the children’s exhibit, no sign of Holly or her parents anywhere. He wanted Rachel to see where she could get a whiff of a hotdog while listening to the cheering of Comiskey Park. He sat down on a row of seats that had been extracted from the old ballpark. When she finally looked at him, he patted the seat on his left.
“I should really go,” she said. “Brett’s probably looking for me by now.”
“Wait.” He stood. “This will sound crazy, but I’m going to the cemetery. For my dad’s yahrzeit. I want you to come with me.” He was stretching the technical anniversary of his dad’s death by two weeks, but he figured it was never a bad time to honor the dead, even if the dead was Stephen Glick.
“You’re going to the cemetery in the dark?”
He noticed how she hadn’t flinched at the news of his father’s death. He liked that she’d known all along. “I’d rather not go alone. It’s my birthday.”
“What about your wife?” she asked.
Holly wouldn’t notice he was gone. That was the depressing truth.
“She helped plan this shin-dig,” he said. “She can’t get away. I’ll come back and get her afterwards.”
Rachel was already crafting the text to Brett in her mind. Enormous headache. Got a ride back with someone leaving early. Brett would understand. Or he wouldn’t. She’d deal with that later.
“We better grab our coats,” he said.
It was insane, silly really, but she was going with him anyway—stuffy-nosed, twelve-seconds-at-a-time Jared Glick.
“Isn’t the cemetery locked at night?” she asked.
“Not if you know the guy with the keys. I do this every February.”
They drove the twenty minutes to Skokie in relative silence except when Jared called Carl, who was apparently “the guy with the keys.”
“You’ll be warm enough?” Jared asked when they stepped out of the car.
She considered the knee-length red wool jacket she’d grabbed on her way out the door earlier in the evening instead of the ankle-length down-filled black one she wished she could zip around herself now.
“I’ll be okay,” she lied. There was no point in having him worry about her, not when she’d come here to help him.
“Take my hat and gloves,” he said. When she hesitated, he added, “Just take them.”
She let him hold her hand and lead her on the path between the gravestones. There were no flowers on the simple, unadorned markers, only rocks of all sizes from pebbles to larger stones. They walked for another five minutes, her toes numb in the leather boots.
“Here it is,” he said. “Stephen Glick.”
She watched him brush the snow off the letters of his English and Hebrew names.
“He wrote me a few letters,” Jared said. “Before he died. It was cancer.”
“I’m sorry.” She meant she was sorry about his relationship with his dad in general, not just that he’d died. She didn’t know how to express this though. What business did she have being there comforting someone else’s husband, comforting a man other than Brett? She and Jared had meant something to each other once upon a time, but did that give them a right to dip back towards each other whenever it amused them? She looked towards the car by the gate where Carl was standing guard. She didn’t want to leave. Not yet.
Jared saw Rachel shiver and instinctively rubbed his hands up and down her arms. “I didn’t respond to my dad’s letters,” he admitted. “Too little too late.”
“Did you read them?”
“Did he explain why he left? Did he apologize?”
“He said my mom kicked him out . . . that we were better off without him. He was always full of shit though so I don’t know what to believe.”
“Yet here we are,” Rachel said. “You must have a found a way to forgive him.”
“I just want to say Kaddish, leave some pebbles, and we’ll go.”
“I didn’t mean that we shouldn’t be here.”
“No, this is longer than I usually stick around. I guess I come at night because the first time I came it was at night. It’s my unconventional tradition for him, I guess. The best he deserves.”
He removed a handful of pebbles from his coat pocket and put them on the gravestone.
“What do we do now?” Rachel asked.
“I think about a good memory of him and say Kaddish and we go.”
“You still have some? Good memories?”
“My dad wasn’t all bad.”
He grabbed her hand, hoping she still had good memories about their summers together, that she had at some point forgiven him for giving up on what they might have had together in Ann Arbor, or later in New York, with baby Ilan and whatever they were going to name the girl.
He began the Mourner’s Kaddish. By now he knew the prayer from memory and was starting to appreciate the meaning on a deeper level, how he had to accept an imperfect world, a world where he’d eventually lose the people he’d love and they’d lose him—if anyone was around who still loved him by then. He was starting to doubt that. He suspected he wasn’t a good husband, at least not good enough for Holly. He knew he was a better father than his father had been, but he still had massive room for improvement.
When Jared was done, he turned to Rachel, wondering what she was thinking. He didn’t know what he’d tell Holly about why he’d left. It made him sad to know how little she’d worry while he was gone.
“Ready?” he asked.
She shrugged. “I guess we can’t stay here forever.”
“One day we can.”
She hit his arm and laughed.
“Thanks,” he said. “For laughing. I miss having somebody laugh at my jokes.”
“I was just being nice,” she said. Her smile was friendly though.
“Let’s go,” he said. “I’m freezing and you have my hat.”
He held her hand on the way to the car and during the ride further north into the suburbs.
“Get off at Lake Cook,” she told him.
He drove under the speed limit, putting off the moment when he’d have to let her go. She directed him to her cul-de-sac then her driveway. The house was enormous. He hoped she’d never look up his address and see his unimpressive street.
When he released her hand, she said, “You attend that event every year? The Chicago History Museum?”
He said he did.
“So next February then.” She opened the car door.
“You’re saying you want to see me again?”
“I’m saying I wouldn’t mind an annual ‘hello’.”
He grabbed her wrist before she could step out. He wanted to thank her for her generosity. For insulting him earlier in the night. For reminding him that he might be worthy of someone’s ire and attention. He wished he could see her again before next February, before the next weekend even. He wanted to ask her, to see if such a thing was possible.
Instead he said, “So next February.” Because the most generous thing he could do for Rachel was leave her marriage and her life intact.
She slid her wrist out of his hand and shut the passenger door behind her. He watched her type a code into the keypad by the first of four garage doors. Illuminated by the light suddenly inside the garage, she turned around and waved.
“Happy birthday,” she shouted, smiling as she waved goodbye.