by Susan Kleinman
Email or Phone: Carol@WestCloRealty.com
Not the most secure password, but that’s okay. Carol never posts anything private on her Facebook page, anyway; just announcements of upcoming open houses and “likes” on the posts of anyone who might want her to help them buy or sell a home one day – which is to say, everyone she’s ever met.
Carol Gold: Join me Sunday, August 24, 2014, from 1-3 p.m. at this beautifully renovated 4 bed/3 bath at 351 Austen Drive. Walk to Worship. See you there.
She “likes” seven idiotic cat videos, nine random quotes from Monty Python movies, 83 pictures from the Isaacsons’ trip to Israel, and an urgent reminder from Barbara Kranzler that recipes are due for the second edition of the shul’s fundraising cookbook, The West Kloverdale Kosher Kooking Konnection Kollection. Such a waste of time and paper thinks Carol, who just Googles when she needs a recipe. But she picks up her phone nevertheless, clicks over to its electronic to-do list and enters a reminder to send in her three-ingredient chili recipe. Barbara is an old friend and a hard worker, and besides: With the Kranzlers’ youngest daughter recently married off, Barb and Bert are talking about downsizing, and Carol has a gorgeous condo right near shul that has been sitting on the market a little bit too long.
She hits “like.”
Reb Andy: Oh, for God’s sake, Carol thinks, can’t he just call himself Rabbi Garelick like a grownup? Would love to see EVERYONE bright and early for Shabbat morning services.
Garelick has been making great efforts to get the women of West Cloverdale to come to shul earlier, with their husbands; has been trying mightily to make them feel more equal by having women stand up and read the “Prayer for Our Congresspersons” aloud. Honestly, Carol thinks, as she hits “like” (the Rabbi always knows when a young couple is checking out the neighborhood or hunting for a house), if I wanted to be equal, I would join the Unitarian Church.
Laura Lipschitz: Happy birthday to the best husband, partner and lover a girl could ever hope for, my sweet @Stuie Lipshitz.
Ugh. Carol might find this a bit less nauseating if Stuart Lipshitz were not, in fact, the LEAST sweet man she has ever met; if the word “lover” didn’t sound so creepy; if Laura didn’t spend half of every sisterhood meeting complaining (right in front of Carol and Barb and Sheila Edelstein, each of them old enough to be Laura’s mother!) about how her husband probably wouldn’t be able to find her G-spot with a GPS. But still, Carol clicks over to Stuart’s Facebook page and dutifully types “Happy Birthday” on his wall. If Laura ever gets tired of waiting for Loverboy to locate her erogenous zones and needs to sell their McMansion in a divorce settlement, Carol’s commission could run to 65 or 70 grand.
She posts “Happy birthday!” to Marge Blaustein, too, and to Emily Miller and Brian Cooper-Jaffe; “friends” 37 friends of friends, and keeps scrolling. There’s a distressing article from Tablet.com about the Jews of Paris, and a not-even-remotely-funny Purple Clover cartoon about forgetting one’s reading glasses… and, then – finally! – something that actually makes her smile:
Alison Liebskind has posted a video.
Carol doesn’t think it’s a great idea for a 10-year-old to be on social media, but she has to admit it is nice to see her granddaughter’s face on the computer in between visits up to Westchester.
“Ok,” Alison is saying on the screen, as Carol clicks the little arrows that enlarge the video: “I would like to nominate my best friend, Chloe Orenthal; my mother, Rachel Liebskind; and my brother Jonathan Liebskind.” And with that, she dumps a bucket filled with – What is that? ICE? Yes, ice – dumps it over her own head, soaking her gorgeous red curls and her blue Camp Ramah t-shirt as she shrieks and giggles and dances in her flip-flops on the driveway. “You have 24 hours to complete the ice bucket challenge or donate to the mumble-mumble-mumble” – What is she saying?
The screen momentarily goes black and then there is Jonathan in the video. God, when did he get so tall? Carol switches over to her to-do list and makes a note to call Rachel about a visit, then jots a few words in the crossword puzzle she does every morning to help keep her memory sharp, and opens a text that has just pinged on her phone. Whenever her husband, Wally, teases that she can multi-task like nobody’s business, she reminds him that multitasking IS her business, that she hasn’t won WestClo Realty’s Top Performer Award 17 years in a row without being able to juggle him and the kids and the grand-kids and the house and her clients; and – these last few years – her texts and her tweets and Instagram, too. The text is a client asking if she can reschedule her look at the house on Fitzgerald Lane from 3:15 this afternoon to 4:30. “Sure. C U then,” Carol types, in the text-speak she hired a high-school kid to teach her so that her twenty-and thirty-something house-buying clients would feel at ease with her. (The older clients – the sellers – she still calls on their land-lines. More than one has thanked her profusely for this, as if she has performed a heroic act of lovingkindness.)
She puts down her phone and turns back to the computer screen. “OK,” Jonathan is saying through the gap where his front baby-teeth used to be. “Wait. What do I say?”
Carol hears Alison’s impatient big-sister sigh, and then, “You have to nominate people.”
“Oh, yeah, I would like to nominate my best friend, Jonah, and my Grandma – what’s Grandma’s real name again?”
Slower, heavier sigh: “Carol Gold, you dumb-head.”
“Oh, yeah. My Grandma, Carol Gold.”
When Carol met Wally, his last name was Goldfinger, but she convinced him to shorten it before their wedding. The theme song from that James Bond film was still playing on the pop-radio stations, and she dreaded a lifetime of spy jokes and double entendres. “We have to think about our future children,” she told him when she suggested “Gold” – short and sweet. “I’m just being practical.”
Of course she was. Carol is the very soul of practicality. Wash-and-go haircuts and sensible shoes. Three-ingredient suppers and no-iron sheets. In addition to Wally’s name, she had persuaded him to change his college major, too. Au revoir, French Literature… Hello, accounting. And when it had been time for them to look for a house, (Wally had just made partner at his firm; Carol was pregnant with their second child), she didn’t pick a community by hunch or gut feeling or what her current crop of house-hunters call “vibe,” but by drawing up a decision tree on three pages of the ledger paper Wally used to bring home from the office.
And she had made a good choice. The Golds have been happy in West Cloverdale for 45 years now, surrounded by people who share their values and their politics; by friends who brought car-loads of casseroles when Rachel’s first husband, Uri, was killed in a robbery at his shoe store, and stacks of wedding presents when she married her second husband, Aaron in the rabbi’s study. Ali had been born a year later and Jonathan, two more years after that. How is it that he is already about to begin 3rd grade?
“You have 24 hours,” Jonathan is saying now on Carol’s computer screen, “to donate to the – wait, what’s it called again?”
“Oh, just give me the phone,” Alison snaps. The picture jerks and shakes and then there is Ali’s face again. “Hi, Grandma, Jonathan just nominated you for the ALS ice bucket challenge. That means you have 24 hours to dump a bucket of ice over your head or give money to the ALS foundation…”
Jonathan jumps back into the frame. “Oh, yeah. The ALS Foundation. It’s a sickness, and, um, well, it’s really bad, I think, so you have to give them money. Or do the ice thing. Like this.” And he picks up a bucket – a heavy one, judging by the strain on his freckled face – dumps the contents over his head, and starts to cry.
“It’s colllllld,” he wails through his tears, as the screen goes blank.
Of course it’s cold. Carol thinks, pushing her chair away from the computer with a screech. It’s ice.
But it’s not Jonathan she’s annoyed with, sweet gap-toothed Jonathan, and she knows it. She bites the nail off her left pinky, a habit she gave up in seventh grade when she sent away for a booklet on how to quit; paces around the kitchen; eats three cookies left over from Shabbos even though she isn’t hungry; and slams the pantry door shut.
ALS. Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis. Lou Gehrig’s disease.
Lou Gehrig’s – and David Stein’s.
David Stein. A tall, handsome man with a short, handsome name; a medical student at Columbia, from a nice family in Woodmere. Carol met him during her sophomore year at Hunter College, at a party given by a mutual friend. Within the week, they were going steady. By the end of the month, she knew she wanted to marry him.
“It’s Prince Charrrrrrrming,” her mother always whispered in a happy little sing-song voice every time she handed Carol the phone. “Dr. Right!” her father proclaimed after Carol brought David home for dinner. And indeed, he WAS charming, with his polished manners and his easy smile. And it DID feel right, talking to him, dancing with him, necking in his car – but nothing more. No one buys the cow, Carol knew, if they can get the milk for free.
Carol and David had fun together: They both liked ice-skating and tennis; enjoyed the same movies and laughed at the same jokes. They looked good together: her blonde head against his broad shoulder. And they agreed about all the things that could cause a less-compatible couple to argue: money (they were both savers, not spenders); food (not too spicy); and children (they would have two, unless the first two were the same sex, in which case they would try once more – but only once more.) David would be a good father and a good provider.
“That’s all very nice, but does he make your heart go pitter-pat?” her sister, Ruth, asked as Carol ticked off these attributes on her fingers. “Is he your one and only?”
The answers were yes and no, respectively.
Yes, Carol really was in love with David. But no, she didn’t believe that there was one and only one man for every woman, or just one woman for any man. “How could that BE, with three billion people on the planet?” she challenged Ruth back in 1959. “Only one? It’s just not possible,” she told herself again in 2002, when she signed Rachel up for jDate a year after Uri’s funeral.
And I was right, she thinks now, every time she sees Alison and Jonathan on Facebook – Alison and Jonathan, who both have Rachel’s blue eyes and Aaron’s ginger curls. There is more than one-and-only Prince Charming.
But oh, yes, David Stein made her heart go pitter-pat. She thought about him when she rode the subway to Hunter and when she studied in the library and when she drank tea back in her parents’ kitchen, late at night. She thought about how smart he was and how funny and how handsome; about what it would be like to sleep with him after they got married and what it would be like to make a home with him.
And then, one Sunday morning when David and Carol were eating blintzes at Rattner’s, David dropped the fork on its way to his mouth. A few weeks later, he spilled his Coke down the front of his shirt while they waited for a movie to start. It’s just pre-engagement jitters, Carol assured herself, as she handed him a stack of napkins from the concession stand. She and David had been talking a lot about marriage – although they agreed that they should wait to formalize things until they were both closer to graduation. She had let him know (after practicing in front of her mirror at home to make sure that her practicality didn’t come across as bossiness) that she would prefer a white-gold setting to platinum for her diamond engagement ring, because white-gold prongs were less likely to bend and break; and that she’d rather have a summer wedding than a winter one – no blizzards to worry about. David seemed as excited about all of it as she felt. But still, getting engaged would be a big deal, Carol told herself when he tripped over his own feet on his way off the tennis court at his parents’ club. His nervousness didn’t mean he didn’t love her.
“I love you,” he told her, as he dusted grass off his knees and took her hand. “I love you,” he said again, later, as he kissed her neck in her parents’ driveway in Forest Hills. And then, as he started to open her sweater, he said, “I think I might have Lou Gehrig’s Disease.”
For a split second – and she hated herself afterwards for even thinking it – Carol wondered if this was a ploy to get the milk for free.
“You what?” she said, softly, leaning away from him and fumbling to close the little pearl buttons on her cardigan.
“I have a neurologist’s appointment tomorrow,” he said. “I’ve been trying into find a good time to tell you, but now it just slipped out. I’m sorry.”
“Let’s not panic,” she said, forcing a smile. “I bet it could be any one of a number of things.”
At the college library the next day, she researched some of the things that might be causing David’s tremors and his clumsiness: Early-onset Parkinson’s, or maybe multiple sclerosis – neither of those diseases a picnic, either, but better than Lou Gehrig’s. But David – medical student and son of a doctor – had already ruled those out on his own.
The first neurologist sent David to a second, who explained what David already knew, and what Carol had learned in her hours of research: that ALS can’t be diagnosed except by process of elimination. Dr. Lerner called for tests to rule out every disease that was likely and several that weren’t, until the only test they hadn’t done, David tried half-heartedly to joke, was a Pap smear.
“I’m afraid we’re at the end of the line,” David imitated Dr. Lerner’s pompous voice when he relayed the conversation to Carol. “The end of the line,” as if the whole thing had been a trip out to Coney Island.
Every night for the next month, Carol lay awake in her bed, wondering whether and when she should break it off with David. “It would be different if it weren’t fatal,” she protested when Ruth accused her of being heartless and unromantic. If she married him now, she wouldn’t be a virgin when she had to date again after a suitable period of mourning. And what Nice Jewish Boy her age would want a woman who had been around? If she didn’t marry David but stayed with him till the end, she’d be a spinster at 27 or 28 – and to whose benefit?
So when he did the gentlemanly thing and suggested that they break up, she hugged him gently and promised that even if they weren’t together, she would still be his friend – his very best friend – until the end.
And, for a couple of years, she was. She borrowed her father’s car and drove David out to Jones Beach in the summer; took the Long Island Railroad out to watch the World Series with him at his parents’ house in the fall. She sent him funny cards from the Hallmark store and rugelach from his favorite bakery in the city every few weeks, and she called him every night (now that they were just friends she didn’t have to worry about appearing too forward) and told him funny stories about her classes and her cousin Kenny’s bar mitzvah and the ridiculous guy Ruth was dating, often talking until she fell asleep with the telephone receiver in her hand.
But then, during her senior year, she met Wally. Wally with his sweet soul and his sharp mind. Wally who agreed to switch his major and change his name for her. Wally, to whom she never breathed a word about David Stein; whom she made Ruth promise not to tell about David, either. What would be the point?
It took Carol three weeks after Wally proposed before she could bring herself to call David.
“Mazal tov, beautiful bride!” he said when she finally forced herself to tell him that she was engaged. And then, after a long and painful silence, “So, I guess this is our last phone call, huh?”
She thought of saying that no, they could still speak, could still be friends – but she knew that wasn’t true. If it were true, if David was really her friend, she would have told Wally all about him, would maybe even invite David to the wedding. Or take Wally out to visit him. And she would never do any of that.
“I’ll never forget you,” Carol promised.
But then she had.
Well, she didn’t forget him always, and never entirely. She remembered him when she played tennis and when she ate rugelach. Sometimes, even after all these years, when she woke up she could see his face in front of her, so close-seeming and so real-looking that once, she had reached out to touch him, only to find herself grasping at the air. But she forgot him for long stretches of time, when she was busy with Wally and her babies and her real estate class; with her aging parents and her growing children and her committees at the shul.
When Uri was killed, Carol had wondered briefly whether seeing her daughter grieve was her punishment for not sticking around to mourn David properly. But then she reminded herself that she didn’t believe such superstitious nonsense; that she was a rational woman, and it was the 21st century. And so, when for a brief moment she thought of telling Rachel about David – “I know exactly how you feel” – she just hugged her, instead, and helped fill out death certificates and insurance forms.
“Do you ever think about him?” Ruth asked at the end of the shiva for Uri, when the two sisters were packing leftover lasagnas from neighbors for the freezer.
“About whom?” Carol feigned ignorance, but Ruth saw right through her and asked again.
“I do think about him sometimes,” Carol whispered to Ruth in the kitchen that afternoon, wondering – as she did when she still sometimes awoke with David’s face fading from a dream – whether “sometimes” was too often or not often enough. “But you know how I am. Brass-tacks; tachlis, here-and-now.”
“Heartless,” Ruth had mumbled and Carol had pretended not to hear. Well, what good would it have done Carol – or David – for her to stay in touch with him? What would she have told him? That married life was treating her very well, thanks? That when she had bled, a little, on her wedding night, Wally had looked pleased? No, she had told herself when she didn’t call David; when she made herself throw out the obituary pages of the Times before she could be tempted to read them. What good would her tears do David? What good would they do her?
No, she had told herself all those years ago, it was better for everyone this way.
And now, in a new century in another state, her computer buzzes and pings.
Rachel Liebskind likes Alison Libeskind’s video.
Rachel Liebskind shared Alison Liebskind’s video. “So proud of my kiddies!!”
Rachel Liebskind tagged you in a post: “Did you see this @Carol Gold?”
Carol forces herself to “like” that, and then clicks the video again, turns away from it to answer a text about the shul’s pew re-upholstery committee before she turns back to her computer:
“I would like to nominate my Grandma. What is Grandma’s real name?” Jonathan is asking, and for a moment Carol worries about his attention-paying skills; didn’t Ali just tell him her name a moment ago? But then she remembers that she is watching the same video a second time. Jonathan is fine.
She logs out of Facebook and sits at her desk for a long while, thinking about the days she and David spent waiting for his diagnosis and the nights she spent wondering how to let him down gently; about the first time he tripped and the last time they spoke.
Finally, she rises from her ergonomic chair, slips her phone into one of the Ziploc bags she buys by the gross and tucks it into her pocket, and heads down to the laundry room. “Fully-finished basement!” she will advertise one day, when she and Wally are ready to downsize from the house into a condo. “Brand new appliances!”
She reaches under the laundry sink for a bucket, heads back upstairs to the kitchen and presses the bucket against the ice maker in the freezer door, then carries it carefully out to the deck, where the late-summer haze stings her eyes. Just 9:30 a.m. and already the temperature is in the high 80s. It won’t be long until the ice starts to melt.
“This is for you, Ali and Jonathan,” Carol says, talking into the Ziploc-waterproofed phone she is holding at arm’s length. She lifts the bucket one-handed and awkwardly tips it over her head.
And then, just like sweet, shivering Jonathan, she cries.
Susan Kleinman’s short stories have appeared in The Baltimore Review, Inkwell, the William and Mary Review, JewishFiction.net, and The MacGuffin, and her articles, essays, and book reviews have been published in dozens of newspapers and magazines, including The New York Times and New YorkMagazine. She teaches fiction writing at the Writing Institute at Sarah Lawrence College, where she was a Gurfein Writing Fellow in 2010.
Wow! So impressed with this story. Everything about it sings — incredible writing.