Annie conceded that Frank was the quasi-perfect husband, bright, kind and, nicest of all, solvent.
As her best friend Barbara nodded, Annie ticked off Frank’s other virtues. He never smoked, he hardly drank, and he only glanced at other women. He clucked at her problems and shrugged off her purchases. By day, he esteemed her, and at night, he gave her eight or ten ripple orgasms and occasionally a real zinger.
Just the same, she confided, there were difficulties. “He’s forgetful.” Annie rubbed sunscreen on her slim, smooth legs.
Barbara shrugged her plump, freckled shoulders. “Write notes.”
“He’s a slob.”
“So pick up after him.” Barbara gazed at the pool. “God, you’re so lucky to have such a big house and a pool, too.”
“He’s not romantic. I never actually fell in love with him.”
“You had romantic,” Barbara shouted. “Romantic Brad who dropped you, romantic Vic who still owes you money, romantic Kevin who cheated on you. Now you have Frank. He worships you, he pays your bills, he bought you this lovely house, and you with paint under your fingernails. How could you stay alive on the few paintings you sell? You want to go back to juggling illustrations, art direction and giving classes?” She stopped to catch her breath. “You’ve been married how long now, a year?”
“And in less than two years, you’ve forgotten what’s out there. A good man is hard to find.”
“He’s not Jewish.”
“He wasn’t Jewish when you married him.”
Annie’s blue eyes glistened with tears, and her paint-speckled fingers raked her cornsilk hair. “I sometimes feel as if I’m losing my Jewish identity. Last weekend, we went to one of Frank’s company parties, and a woman there asked me if I was active in my church.” Annie paused to let it sink in. “She thought I was Protestant because Frank is.”
Barbara scanned the lap pool, the stately house and the manicured grounds and began shouting again. “What do you want, heaven? Something’s always missing in life. What about me? I have no Frank to support me, I have to work at a job I can’t stand, and what are my prospects? I’ll grow more wrinkles and get more desperate. I have no house, not even a condo, and the rent on my crummy apartment goes up each year, as regular and as depressing as Pap smears.
“What identity did you have before? You never went to services, and you never kept kosher. You look like a shiksa, you sound like a shiksa, you think like a shiksa. Fulfillment!” Barbara snapped her mouth shut.
After her friend left, Annie said to herself, how can Barbara talk? She picks apart every man she dates.
Annie sighed, showered, and set out to fulfill her wifely duties by shopping for the evening meal. At the grocer, she bantered over the eggs. At the fruit and vegetable store, she flirted over the romaine. At the fish store, she did no bantering.
The drawn woman who ran the shop came straight to the point. “It’s Friday,” she said. “You want carp?”
“No. My husband likes barbecued swordfish.”
The woman’s eyes flickered. “No swordfish. It’s not kosher.”
Annie felt guilty. She should have known, but how? Her mother had never kept kosher. Neither did either grandmother. She would try to make it up. “What do you suggest?”
As the woman cleaned and filleted the fish, Annie breathed, “You’re always so busy. You should hire a helper.”
The woman threw back her head, making her red wig slide askew. “With five little mouths to feed, who can afford a helper?”
“You’re a single mother?”
The woman’s eyes flashed again. After she accepted money from Annie and returned the change, she turned briskly toward the other customers. “Next?”
Annie returned to the house, deposited the food in the refrigerator and entered her studio. She was working on a huge piece that promised to be a breakthrough. Last night, the painting had perplexed and impressed Frank all at once. “What is it?” The big man’s pink brow furrowed. “I mean, it’s so big and yet it says so little.”
Annie managed a weak smile, but inwardly she seethed.
The weeks rolled by, Frank blissful with his nightly sex and freshly cooked meals, Annie simmering in discontent.
Then she had the dream.
When she entered the fish store, the woman with the wig was missing. Instead, there was a tall, dark man with a handsome face that El Greco might have painted if he had painted Jews.
“Where is Malka?” Annie asked.
“I am Moish, Malka’s husband. I used to study in the shul. Now I sell fish. There is a time to live and a time to die. Malka is gone.”
It was only a dream, Annie reminded herself. Yet the next day she went to the fish store to make sure that the red-wigged woman was still there. Her name turned out to be Malka.
That night in her dreams, she was back at the fish store. This time, Moish looked upset. Tears coursed down his cheeks and landed in fat drops on his dark beard.
Annie was moved and reached over to pat him on the hand. “You poor man, alone with five little children.”
Moish yanked his hand back instantly. “It is forbidden that a woman who is not my wife should touch me.”
“Forget it,” Annie snapped. “A pound of sea bass.”
By night, Annie went to the fish store and found Moish. By day she went there and saw Malka.
“Soon I’ll grow fins,” Frank said after his fifth consecutive fish dinner.
Annie grew tired of fish as well, but she also wanted to shed the confusion in her life. She told the story to Barbara. Her friend took the unusual step of keeping quiet and thinking a few minutes. “I’ll give you some free advice. Buy your fish at Gelson’s. It’s fresh, and you won’t have to deal with Malka or Moish.”
In her next dream, Moish seemed more agitated than before. Instead of tears, he looked flushed. As he handed her a package of trout, he said in a strangled voice, “I must declare myself. It’s you. I love you. A goyishe punim, but a Yiddish soul.” Moish sounded exultant. “You are the perfect woman.”
Annie started in surprise and flushed in embarrassment. “How can you talk like this in a store full of customers?”
“It’s a dream,” Moish pointed out. “They can’t hear us.”
Annie’s eyes fastened on his El Greco face and considered him as a possible lover. A good idea, she decided. Leaning forward, she whispered, “You want to fool around?”
“Tart! Tramp! Strumpet! Whore!” Moish sounded like an eruption of Roget’s Thesaurus. “I want to marry you.”
Annie pointed to the gold band on her finger. “But I’m already married.”
“Yes, but to a Gentile. It is not a marriage sanctified by the Torah.”
Annie drew back. “I never told you about my marriage.”
“But this is a dream. I can know anything and everything.”
The alarm sounded.
In the next dream, Moish repeated his proposal. Annie felt moved and troubled. “What kind of marriage could we have? I’m married to Frank while I’m awake. We could only be together while I’m sleeping.”
“Oy, you have to be courted,” Moish wailed.
“But don’t you see—”
“I see that we have so little time. Your alarm clock will be ringing soon.”
Before Annie had a chance to object, Moish sketched out his plans for their wedding. “We’ll have Rebbe Aranowicz write the ketuba.”
“What’s a ketuba?”
“Oy, what a shiksa,” Moish moaned. “The ketuba is the wedding contract. It says how we divide our worldly goods.”
“What about community property?”
Moish waved his arm as though he were fending off flies. “And my mother will take you to the mikvah—”
“I know it’s goyish of me to ask—”
“The ritual bath for women.”
While Annie stood sputtering, the alarm rang. She went into the kitchen and prepared Frank’s ham and eggs. As soon as he planted a goodbye kiss on her face, Annie was on the phone to Barbara. “His mother is taking me to a mikvah!”
“I thought Frank’s mother was dead.”
“Of course not Frank’s mother. Moish.”
“Oh, Moish. Your dream lover. It’s a pity you can’t grow a new hymen.”
“You’re joking, of course.”
“No. His mother will inspect you to find out if you’re still pure.” Before Annie had a chance to object, Barbara continued, “Tell me. When was the last time you and Frank went out? I mean to a real restaurant, where Frank has to wear a jacket.”
“It’s been ages.”
“Tell Frank you want to remember how it feels to walk in heels. Say you’ve worn zoris so long you’re Japanese below the ankles.”
“He’ll love it. Goodbye now, I have to leave for work.”
Maybe Barbara was right. After “Monday Night Football,” Annie curled up next to Frank, blew in his ear and suggested an evening at a fine restaurant.
Frank glared at her. “Some place like Spago? I’ll have to wear a jacket. It’ll feel like work.”
That evening Moish and Annie had a magnificent wedding under a canopy. The two of them shared a goblet of wine, and at the end Moish stamped on a napkin-shrouded glass.
The dining room was a blizzard of white tablecloths, gleaming silver and crystal, each table anchored by a bottle of sweet kosher wine. Before Annie had a chance to attack the mounds of gefilte fish and kishke, she was lifted, chair and all, into the air. The crowd swayed beneath her. She was the queen.
Then came bowls of matzo ball soup, golden and glistening with chicken fat, and between the courses, dancing. Not men and women together, but horas, first the women dancing together, and then circles of the men, men in black whirling together.
Platters of flanken, kugel and tzimmes arrived, followed by mounds of macaroons, honey cake and strudel. There were no green vegetables, no salad, no fruit, not a vitamin lurking anywhere.
The food was tasteless and too much, and Annie loved it. This was the Jewish wedding she never had, remembering even in her dream the dreariness of New York’s City Hall with Dave and the Mar Vista backyard with Frank.
There was dancing, dancing, dancing, the men taking ever more beautiful and complicated steps. When the men ran out of breath, the women came back with a vengeance, the bride in the center, circling. Just as Annie felt dizzy, the alarm sounded.
The next night, when Moish and Annie were alone in their bedroom, Moish went straight to taking off his clothes. He began to stroke her hair and kiss her face, and soon they were in the garden of delights.
Annie called Barbara at her office. “He’s a fantastic lover.”
“A dream lover,” Barbara said.
“He takes me where I’ve never been before.”
“Get Frank to—Forget it. The other phone is ringing.”
Night followed night in a dizzying display of sexual cliches. Moish kissed and caressed, probed and discovered, taking Annie beyond ecstasy to a joy she had never even imagined, but then, with familiarity and the dailiness of life together, their pleasure began to pall. Annie rummaged through her bag of sexual gambits. When they were in bed, she embraced Moish tenderly and said, “Darling, why don’t we—”
Moish clamped a hand over mouth. “Sha, woman! Don’t speak your sinful thoughts. Don’t even mention what we can do. The Torah forbids us to perform such unspeakable acts together.”
Barbara hooted at Annie’s story. “Speakable, unspeakable, the Torah lets a married couple do anything they want.” She stopped to answer an incoming call. “I have an idea. On Friday night, why don’t you come with me to services?”
“Bring him along.”
Frank pleaded a previous engagement with his newspaper; Annie decided to go without him.
Annie spent Friday puzzling over what to wear. Surely slacks were out of the question, and her party dresses revealed too much skin. She settled on a shirt and skirt she used to wear to see art directors and covered her head with a mantilla bought for a visit to the Vatican.
Women in the congregation spotted the mantilla, and angry glances came her way. “Take that damn thing off,” Barbara whispered.
Annie slipped the scarf into her purse and turned her attention to the prayer book. Too bad that she had never gone to Hebrew school for she could neither read the words nor follow the service. Barbara nudged her every time she had to turn a page or stand up with the rest of the congregation.
The evening left her in a state of exquisite ambivalence. Although she had felt no connection to the services, she was positive her experience ranked high in Jewishness.
When Moish came to Annie again, he had changed greatly. His hair and beard had turned gray, and he wore a white suit.
Annie drew back in alarm. “Moish, what happened?”
“Many years have passed, my darling, and I have grown old and rich. I can afford to have a tailor make me white suits.”
“Many years? You were here just last night.”
Moish shook his head and looked at her fondly as though she were a child having trouble with long division. “Only in your dream. Take it from me, my darling, we are both twenty years older, and now you can no longer have children.”
“Children?” Annie repeated. When had they ever discussed children?
“Where is the son who will say Kaddish for me when I die? It is fit that I choose a younger bride, one who will give me sons. And so, my sweet, we will get a get.”
Moish sighed. “You are so goyish. A get is a religious divorce.”
In an instant, it appeared, Moish, still with his gray hair and beard, was now wearing black. He stood in a room before a table of other men also in black. They spoke in Yiddish and Hebrew and consulted thick books. When they stopped, Moish had vanished from view and Annie’s wedding band was stripped from her finger.
“Congratulations,” Barbara cried when she heard the news. “You’re finished with your midnight lover.”
When Annie went to the fish store, red-wigged Malka was gone, and the person handing her the sole was Moish. He was not the El Greco portrait of her dreams, but simply an acne-scarred fishmonger in a blood-smeared apron.
That evening Annie broached the subject of their summer vacation to Frank. “How about Maui?”
“Maui!” The big man muted the sound on the playoffs. “Not me. I don’t need to travel thousands of miles to come back looking like a lobster. I love you a lot, but nothing and no one can drag me back to Hawaii!”
“How about using sunscreen? It works for me.”
Frank made a face. “That greasy crap! Not on your life!” He turned up the sound.
A few hours later, Annie dreamed that she was peering at a silversword on Haleakala. Suddenly, she looked up into the slate gray eyes of a handsome, brown-skinned park ranger.
“Aloha,” he greeted her. “You are lovely.”
“Mahalo,” Annie thanked him, her face dimpling into a smile.
“We shall go to the koi pond,” he said.
Annie’s brow puckered. “Koi?”
“You haoles know them as carp.”
Taking his arm, she strolled by his side and rapidly fell in step.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Carol Schwalberg is a fourth-generation New Yorker who considers herself a naturalized Californian. Her short stories have appeared in anthologies and magazines on four continents. She has also published non-fiction books, poetry, essays and photographs as well as over 300 newspaper and magazine articles. She won first prize for her short story in Verdad, her poems in Lucidity Poetry Journal and her parody of Joan Didion’s work in the 2008 Happy Endings Contest sponsored by Humanities Montana. The University of Southern Mississippi holds a collection of her non-fiction manuscripts in the Carol Schwalberg papers. The 2009 edition of Who’s Who includes her biography.