Cherry Blossoms – Sam Oppenheim

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While I waited for Maddy to get home, my father called. “You’re always waiting for her,” he said. “I know she’s your wife but you never eat with your own father.”

I asked him how he likes the city.

He coughed up phlegm. “I can’t complain, David.” He breathed loudly through the receiver. “But the bagels aren’t the same. They are cooked in unclean water! And Rabbi Nachner is too young and doesn’t fast on Yom Kipper. It’s no Cherry Hill.”

I told him I’m sorry.

“It’s not your fault, David. You didn’t make the bagels.”

I listened to the silence on the phone. I counted the breaths. One-two. One-two.

“I’ve been eating donuts lately. I know they not good for me, but it’s nice having a change.”

I didn’t say anything.

“I think I’m done with bagels. I’ve had enough for a lifetime.”

I didn’t say anything.

“You don’t have to come to Shabbat.”

I’ll come.

“Madeline too?”

Maddy too.

His voice lifted. “So, David. You see the Mets play last night? Ten-to-one, eh?”

We grew up in a typically small Jewish community in a town called Cherry Hill, New Jersey. There, my father noshed, my mother kibbitzed, and I ate bacon cheeseburgers. I smoked pot in the alleys behind Hebrew School with the Jewish girls, traded baseball cards with the Jewish boys, and passed notes to my Jewish friends in class.

I wasn’t a chosen one.

On Saturdays, as my parents picked up their feet and refused to touch the light-switches, I snuck out of the house to play baseball. I ran around those bases barefoot, feeling the earth pack hard underneath my feet. There was something about running barefoot that sitting in synagogue couldn’t fix.

The only time that my Jewish friends and I won, the others called us kikes. And before the night got dark and we only talked through the joint we passed back and forth, they called us friends. My team, they kept their kippahs on their heads as they coughed out smoke. Mine found its way into my pocket.

As I came home, reeking of herb and caked-in mud, my mother held her nose in the air and sniffed. Still a mother, she told her husband to tell her son that brisket was on the counter. My father hobbled over to the kitchen, his hand clutching his back. He motioned with his neck to follow him. When I opened the refrigerator door, he shuffled behind it.

“Did you win, David?”

I smiled. I nodded.

“Wonderful!” He gave me a sharp pat on the back, and told me ice cream was in the freezer. As he walked back to my mom, she snapped her pencil in half while writing in her journal.

“You’re giving him ice cream after brisket?” She asked.

“Look who’s writing,” he said, “it’s not dark yet.”

*** 

The next week, I moved into Rutger’s. My mother was flabbergasted that move-in day was on a Saturday. “Don’t they have any respect?” She asked, throwing her hands in the air. “Don’t they know what we’ve been through?” My father volunteered to take me and as we packed up the car, my mother cleaned the garage windows, her face getting sweatier with each stroke. There was always some chemical cleaner in her hand.

She only hugged me when it was time.

“I love you,” she said. “And I’m proud of you.” I felt her fingers wrap around my cheeks, pinching them. “Go to services, keep kosher, and marry a Jewish girl.” She kissed me on the forehead.

I didn’t say anything.

“Feh, Nadia! You’re the one cleaning on Shabbat,” my father said. The seatbelt clicked into place.

“Yes, but driving to Rutgers today crosses a line, Elie.”

Get in, David. We gotta go if we wanna schlep all your furtiture there before noon.” I got in and looked behind me.

My mother was halfway to the door, lifting up her dress so the dew didn’t lick it.

***

“I’m telling you,” my father said over the phone, “I’ll have a big tub of spaghetti for you and Madeline. I just learned how to make it last week!” Maddy opened the front door. She walked over and kissed me. “I heard that!” he said.

“You talkin’ to ya dad?” I nodded. She smiled and grabbed the phone from my hand and walked into the other room. I listened to the way she talked with him. Her voice bubbled in a way it doesn’t for me. “Elie, how are you? Of course! We were just gonna order take-out! No, no. Spaghetti sounds lovely. Reminds me of Minnesota dinners. Yes.”

She laughed again. I went over to the couch and turned on the television. Maddy recorded another Viking’s game. I decided to accidentally rerecord a cooking show.

“Aren’t those donuts incredible? Yes. Yes. I go there whenever I’m in that part of the city. I always get the-Jelly! Yes!” Yes. A word she only tells him.

I clicked the remote. Informercials filled my head.

“We’ll be over in a couple hours,” she said, hanging up. I pretended to be enthralled by an OxiClean commercial. “He’s your dad, Davie.” She threw the phone at my stomach. I rubbed it, making sure she saw me. “He moved to the city for you.”

I asked her if she needs OxiClean.

“No,” she said. “I need you to put on your coat. It’s the least we can do to hop on the subway and have some dinner.” She threw my coat on the couch.

I told her it gets out pet stains.

“It’s just one dinner,” she said.

I asked her if she practices the Jewish Guilt or if it comes naturally.

“I don’t have pets,” she said, “jus’ roommates. Get up. Get dressed. We’re heading out inna few.” She turned back to the closet. A pair of boots flew out and a pair of sneakers followed. “I need my mittens. Are you gonna help me find them or not?”

I changed the channel.

 ***

Before my father left me alone at college, he told me he smuggled condoms in my shoes. “For your health,” he said, patting me on the back. As I walked him out of the dorm, a girl dropped a bag. I leaned down and picked it up, smiling. I couldn’t stop staring at her. It was the first pair of blue eyes that ever looked back at me.

“Thanks,” she said, grabbing the bag.

I didn’t say anything.

“Madeline,” she said.

I didn’t say anything.

“Like, it’s my name? Maddy, don’t cha know?”

“His name’s David,” my father said. “I like your accent.”

She laughed. It bubbled in her throat. “I’m from Minnesota.”

“And I’m from Queens!” He extended his hand. “Though I was born in Poland. I’m Elie.”

I asked him to stop.

“Nice to meet ya.” She smiled.

My father leaned in close to her. “He only gets this way when he sees a really beautiful woman.”

I asked him to stop.

She brushed tawny hair out of her face. Her lips were full. Her face, like pointillism, sprinkled with freckles. They flickered up her arms and neck. I never saw so many freckles on the girls in Hebrew School. “Thanks for helping,” she said. I grasped her hand and shook it. “I’m still not totally here. It’s all darn different in New Jersey. I just, uh, lost my mitten.”

“Dave can help you!” My father said. He held up a finger. “One time, I lost my favorite journal. It has this beautiful pattern on the front and it was the only thing I kept from Poland. David found it in five minutes, and he was barely looking!”

I asked him to stop.

“Tell you what, Madeline. You take Dave here. I’ll go home and he’ll find your mitten before I can even get to my car. Sound good?” My lips felt dry. My feet clubs. He turned to me, looking me straight on. “Listen to your mother,” he said, “and don’t forget your shoes!”

He walked away. Madeline took her arm in mine. “Shall we?” She asked.

I didn’t say anything.

 ***

The building was small in the Lower East Side. The kind of building they made when the Lower East Side was still poor and Jewish. Its brick body squatted between two larger steel buildings that rose above the littered road. As we walked into the hallway, I almost thought I could smell formaldehyde. I looked over at Maddy. She didn’t even wrinkle her nose.

 We pushed the button for the elevator. It creaked as it slowly traveled its way down. I thought of my father, his shrink-wrapped hand grasping the side railing as he walked his way up the dark stairs to the eleventh floor on Shabbat. And as we stepped into the elevator, I couldn’t stop thinking about cherry blossom trees.

One spring, when I was old enough to have memories, my father drove me across town. The cherry blossoms lined our road like the Queen’s Royal Guard. Their fingers reached over the road, painted nails fluttering. And when the wind hit hard enough, the blossoms would take off, waltzing their way into the air like ballerinas before settling to the ground. My father, opening his eyes as if for the first time, started crying. “Don’t you see, David?” He said. “Isn’t the world such a blessing?” He pulled the car over, running onto the side grass, his arms twirling around the petals. He caught one, just one, and placed it in his pocket as if it were a note from a beloved. “Come on, you two!” He tapped his feet to an imaginary song. I stepped out, dancing with him. We laughed. We caught petals.

My mother stayed in the car.

I tapped my foot as the elevator moved. I could hear Maddy breathing. I counted the breaths. One-two. One-two. Maddy’s hand slipped into mine and squeezed it. “I know you don’t like Jewish things, but it’s jus’ Shabbat dinner,” she said. “It’s jus’ your dad.”           

I nodded. It’s just Shabbat dinner. It’s just my dad.

The doors opened to a cigarette-stained hallway. The corridor smelled of ammonia and cat piss. I wanted to say something to Maddy.

Instead, I sniffed.

We walked over to the last door on the left. A glimmer of light caught my eye. I looked at Maddy. She moved her ring back and forth. “I’m still not used to wearing it,” she said. I looked at mine and knocked on the door. I smiled.

“Ach! One second” We could hear him through the door, stumbling closer. The sound clicked on a locked door. Then another. A chain moved. Then another click. I counted her breaths. One-two. One-two. The doorknob twisted in place but didn’t budge. “Damn thing needs to be fixed.” A last bolt unlocked and the door swung open.

He looked up at me, holding his arms out wide. “Happy Shabbat, eh?” He was bonier than I remembered. Wrinkles flowed across his face, breaking like surf. Dark spots appeared throughout his thinning hair. But he still had that smile. I hugged him, quickly, and stepped inside.

I didn’t look at how she hugged him.

The apartment was small, with a bed sheet wrapped around a couch in the corner, tears all throughout the creases. The wallpaper, yellowing, peeled back at the edges, revealing strings of stickiness. A television jutted out in the corner, one of the old wood-paneled ones with dials from the 60s. But all around the apartment were the boxes. Dozens of them, stacked all around, completely unopened. Every single box was marked in chicken scratch. Some: “books Nadia.” Others: “clothes Nadia,” “dishes Nadia,” “memories Nadia.”

 All of them said “Nadia.”

“It’s not much,” he said. “I haven’t unpacked fully, as you can see.” He smiled up at me, patting me on the shoulder. “It’s so good to see you! And you, Madeline. I haven’t seen you since the wedding! You were quite the beautiful bride.”

Maddy blushed. “Thanks, Elie. We’ve missed you. But, when did you move in?”

He looked around at the boxes, his hand resting on a chicken scratch name. “The movers left about two months ago, I think.”

“You haven’t unpacked?”

My dad shook his head at her. “No, no,” he said. “My whole life is in these boxes. You don’t unpack your life, or it becomes cluttered. I have my furtiture, that’s enough.” He plodded his way to the stove, clutching his back. “Now I know I shouldn’t cook on Shabbat. But life as a single man is all about discovery!” He threw his hands up at this. Discovery!

It’s just Shabbat dinner. It’s just my dad.

He fetched a box from the closet marked “kitchen Nadia.” As he ripped it open, his eyes rested on the words, not moving. He found three bowls and pulled them out. “Perfect,” he said. He filled them slowly, making sure to fill each to the top. With the craning of the neck, he led us to the couch. It was small, about the size of a love seat. We sat down, submerging deeply in. Our arms touched as we held our bowls. “It, uh, has a way of sinking,” he said.

I told him I’m sorry.

“It’s not like you got this couch, David,” he said through bites of spaghetti. “Besides, I got it for twenty bucks from some shmuck on the Lower West Side!”

I didn’t say anything.

“Have you talked to your mother?” he asked.

“She hasn’t called since the wedding,” Maddy said. “She never really talked to me, but after the wedding, she included him in that.”

My father nodded. “I’m so sorry about all this. I told her that Madeline is no shikse. She may not be a Jew, but she is a lovely lady. But she’s stuck in her ways. She sat shiva for you, David.” He paused. Blinked. “Oy vey,” he said. “For Pete’s sake,” she said.

I didn’t say anything.

“I think she sat shiva for me, too,” he said.

We were quiet for a second, unable to come up with anything to say. He tapped his foot. Finally, he spoke. “So, David! How was the honeymoon?”

I told him it was all right.

“Did you drink the piña coladas?”

I drank the piña coladas.

“Did you swim in the pool? I heard the pool was nice.”            

Yes, the pool was nice.

“Good, good,” he said.

I looked back at the boxes, I asked him if he’s sure he didn’t need help unpacking.

His fork scraped against the bottom of his bowl. He smiled back at me. “Out of pasta. What is the term you say, David? So it goes?”

So it goes, I told him.

 ***

The day I declared my major, my mom stopped talking to me for a week. “I love that you read,” she would always tell me, “but you don’t pay food with books. Back in Poland, your grandparents would do anything for a single zloty! You could pay for food with a single zloty.”

I wanted to tell them how liberating college was. How I never went to Hillel. I wanted to tell them how my kippah never even left my suitcase. How my new friends read novels on Saturdays and no one worried about kashrut. Instead, I told them English was much more than books. I told them about Shakespeare and Cheever, Salinger and Vonnegut. Only my father started caring when I told him about the girl.

“Madeline’s in your classes?” he asked. I confirmed. I could hear him beaming from miles away. “Listen,” he said to me, “you may not be able to feed the family with books, but you can feed the heart with love. Get her.”

“Is she a Jew?” My mother asked.

I hung up.

 ***

“I have to go to the bathroom,” my dad said. He stood up, his hand holding his back, and closed the door behind him.

“You’re such a dick,” Maddy said to me.

I look over at the Windex my father unpacked from the box marked “cleaning Nadia.” Maddy stood up and stomped over to the kitchen, applying yellow rubber gloves onto her hands. She scrubbed hard at the pot of marinara. I watched her face sweat more and more.

The boxes pressed in. I was surrounded by Nadias. I tried to find the remote.

I didn’t hear the toilet flush.

The television only operated through a dial. Every way the antenna moved, the static followed. It kept filling the screen. It was old, unchanging, and stubborn. I decided to let it be.

I didn’t hear the door open.

“Can I show you something, David?” His voiced clipped slightly. I turned off the television.

He grabbed a box. It was covered on all sides with tape, holding it together. It was bigger than all of the rest. The box sat on top of a mountain of its brothers, the king of the hill. He ran his fingers along the edges. He mouthed the description. “family Nadia.” His mouth slowed on the last word.

He brought it over to the couch. The box thrusted into my arms. It was lighter than I expected. I peeled back the first layer of tape. Then the second. Then the third. The tape ripped open with an astounding snap.

The box was inundated with packing peanuts. Thousands of them, pressing into each other like newborn kittens. I scooped them onto the floor. I used both hands. Finally, a book emerged, covered in blue sticky notes. My fingers worked quickly, taking off more and more of them. Notes twirled to the ground like cherry blossoms, falling across the peanuts.

 It was a book of family photographs. It was thin, maybe an inch thick.

“It’s my most prized possession and I can’t even open it alone.” My father weakly smiled at me. He seemed so frail, so old. “It’s a record of everyting I’ve failed at. Everyting I’ve loved.”

It’s just Shabbat dinner. It’s just my dad.

“Can I?” He asked.

 I nodded.

His hand grasped his back as he sat down. “Ach! There we go.” He cleared his throat and flipped to the first page.

I could hear Maddy’s ragged breathing in the kitchen as she scrubbed harder. One-two. One-two.

The first page contained two locks of hair, one black and one auburn. The auburn lock was thick, smooth, and lustery. The other, dull. A picture was glued into the paper, just above the hair: a man and a woman staring at the camera, hair reaching down to their lower backs.

“Times were different back in the early 70s. I don’t tink you ever knew we had a hippy phase.” My father laughed. I felt cold.

I told him I didn’t.

He brought the book up to his face, examining the auburn lock. I wanted to say something about the hair. Something coy about shampoo. I started to talk.

Instead, he sniffed.

It’s just Shabbat dinner. It’s just my dad.

His eyes closed. The wrinkles lifted up his smile. He flipped the page. I saw a picture of a girl, blowing bubbles into the air. She was young, maybe three years old, but she’s got the smile of a forty year old. One of the bubbles was about to touch the man’s nose. He grinned down at her, his fingers petting her hair. His kippah stayed on firm as he was caught in a moment of pure bliss.

“I’m sorry you never got to meet Shira. She was a beautiful girl. Your mother—she wasn’t the same after. She died so young.”

I asked him to stop.

Instead, he sniffled.

He turned the page. I saw a picture of a baby, nestled into the arms of a young bearded man. The kippah he wore was embroidered with a forest of buildings. Next to him, an exhausted woman laid down, her eyes smiling weakly at the camera. Her arms stayed still at her sides, as if she was already asleep.

“This was your first day in the world,” he said. “Nadia’s father gave me this kippah on that day, to celebrate the birth of a handsome boy.”

“A handsome boy?” Maddy sauntered into the bare and boxy living room, kissing me on the head. “What is this about a handsome boy?”

My father showed her the photograph. “Isn’t he beautiful?” He asked. “Isn’t this boy such a blessing?”

“We have to go,” I said.

My father looked up at me, tears in his eyes. He didn’t let them travel down.

“You didn’t see the last page,” he said.

“We can wait,” Maddy said.

He flipped the page. It’s blank. He flipped the next. It’s blank. He flipped the next.

In the middle of the page, taped over completely, was a single cherry blossom, its pink fading. The yellow stem pressed firmly into the page.

“We have to go,” I said. I stood up.

“Why?” Maddy said.

“I’m sorry,” I grabbed my coat. “I’m really, really sorry.”

“Do you remember this?” He asked.

I handed Maddy her mittens. She put them on silently.

“The cherry blossoms just kept falling,” he said. “You and I caught the perfect one.”

“I-we have to go,” I said.

“We were dancing between the petals,” he said.

“I killed your marriage.”

He stopped talking.

I opened up the door. The knob was cold on my hand.

“Can we at least get donuts together?” He asked. “Not bagels, I promise.”

I nodded.

“The jelly kind? Maybe next Saturday morning. We’ll go to the top of the Empire State Building. I’ve never ridden an elevator like that.”

I don’t ask him what he means when he says “like that.”

Maddy shuffles to the door, her head down.

“I love you,” he said.

“I love you too,” I said.

The door closed. I heard a click. Then another. I heard a chain move. Then another click.

The deadbolt sounded as we walked to the elevator.

 

Sam Oppenheim is a senior studying English and Creative Writing at the University of Maine at Farmington. He has been published twice before, both in the Sandy River Review. He lives in Maine with his girlfriend, TJ, and his dog, Baxter.

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