Mabel dropped Estelle off in front of the synagogue entrance promptly at half-past eight and went to park her car. The walk from handicap parking had become too treacherous for her mother, but the mere ten feet from the curb drop-off to the door had already ignited a wheezing fit. Staggering to a nearby bench, Estelle plopped like a rock hitting water. With each grasp for breath, a piercing composition formed within her lungs and played out her mouth. But still after countless episodes, Estelle refused to bring oxygen with her to services. God forbid someone saw her with the prongs in her nostrils, or worse, that hideous green tank hanging across her chest, obstructing everyone’s view of her new wool suit.
Saturday’s services were never so much a religious experience, but rather the mother-daughter’s weekly social engagement. A two-hour service filled with prayers, harmonious chanting, and an after-service kiddish of challah, tuna fish, and gossip. Estelle always enjoyed the service, but the reception was the prize for her weekly excursion out of the house.
“Did you hear about the Metzer daughter?” Fellow yenta, Shoshana Bloomenthal, asked.
“No, what?” Estelle said.
“Frannie and Saul’s daughter, Amaya, is getting a divorce.”
“Oy vey! So sad. Terrible. Who cheated first?”
Mabel rarely joined in the conversations. She preferred to sit at a back table and enjoy the assortment of freshly baked pastries. Her sweet tooth was uncontrollable, but no one would ever believe it from looking at her petite frame. Her unvarying style of long plain skirts, button-up blouses, and over-sized sweaters engulfed her body, magnifying her tininess. As her tongue wrestled with a chunk of chocolate embedded between her back teeth, Estelle clutched her arm.
“Mabel, darling, I’d like to introduce you to someone.”
“Who?” Mabel asked.
“His name is Abe Stein. He just joined the shul. He was over at Beth Tikvah but left to join here. I have yet to find out why he switched, but I definitely will.”
Shoshanna had already cornered the new member when Estelle, with a submissive Mabel trailing behind, interjected.
“Abe, I’d like you to meet my daughter, Mabel.”
Mabel looked up at the man towering over her. She brushed away the long red curl obstructing her view and repositioned her glasses on the crook of her nose. A sturdy grip around her lenses disguised Mabel’s slight trembling. Her emerald gaze focused in.
The man before her wore a brown pinstriped suit and orange tie. A protruding belly and a salt and pepper comb-over completed his look. Abe reached out his hand. Mabel failed to wipe away the dampness from hers before reciprocating. He smiled and his upper lip curled under. She noticed Abe’s yellow teeth and maroon gums. They exchanged pleasantries but not much else. Soon after Mabel said hello, she said good-bye.
The drive home was quiet but once inside, Estelle pounced. “Why didn’t you speak to him?”
“I did,” Mabel said.
“You said hello and that was it. Would it have killed you to have a conversation with him? To have a conversation with anybody?”
The loud silence was Mabel’s normal response to her mom’s persistent pleas. So was her retreat to her bedroom accompanied by the slamming of the door.
Mondays were always busy at the law library. Students sat hunched over their laptops, desperately trying to finish their practice briefs before class. The overload of returned books and journals kept Mabel occupied behind the administrative desk.
Her eyes widened like an animal about to become prey. The man she met on Saturday stood before her.
“What are you doing here?” She asked.
“I’m preparing for a case,” Abe said.
“You’re a lawyer?”
“Yes. This is such a coincidence.”
Abe walked towards the counter. Mabel took a step backwards.
“Beautiful day outside, isn’t it? It’s sunny, but chilly, and there is such a bustle in the air. Such a shame to be stuck in this dark library all day, don’t you think?”
“Oh. I don’t mind. I don’t mind at all.”
She returned to her stack of books. Abe stood still, waiting for the conversation to progress, but Mabel’s head remained down. She took shelter behind the invisible wall she had built between them.
“Well, I guess I should head upstairs. Can’t call it research if I don’t go and look through some books.”
He began to laugh but his deep chuckle transformed into a phlegm-filled cough. Abe reached for a handkerchief from inside his blazer. The sound of him clearing his throat, and spitting out the contents, was a noise that would cause anyone to glance up. Mabel refused until Abe turned away and headed for the second floor. With a laser beam focus, she smashed her barricade and watched him walk away.
With early morning duties finished, Mabel went upstairs to shelve the returns. The process had become a rhythmic dance–walking backwards down the aisle with a stack of books in one arm, placing each one in its proper place with the other. Mabel shifted into autopilot until she felt a sudden tap on her shoulder. The book fell from her hand. The others she carried followed suit. The noise of each one slamming against the floor was eclipsed by Mabel’s audible gasp.
It was Abe. “I’m so sorry. I didn’t mean to startle you.”
He tried to bend over to pick up the books but his extra mid-layer prevented him. He needed assistance from the bookshelf to squat down and Mabel’s help to get back up. Abe was winded and stammered when he spoke.
“No. No. I’m okay. I’ll be fine, but do you need help?” Mabel offered him a seat.
Abe waved her off. He wiped the perspiration from his brow with the back of his hand. One last generous breath seemed to revive him.
“Is there something I can do for you?” Mabel asked.
“Well, yes, I do have something you could do, but not for me, with me.”
Her forehead wrinkled. She began to twist and turn the top button of her sweater.
“I was wondering if you would like to take a break and go outside for a cup of coffee?”
Mabel could feel the button loosening but couldn’t stop.
“Coffee? Me? Oh, I don’t think I could join you.”
“You do take breaks during the day, don’t you?”
“Yes. But…um…they are only for fifteen minutes and I usually sit in the back and read.”
“Well, maybe today you can have coffee and a walk with me.”
Abe placed his hands into his pants’ pockets and jiggled his car keys in anticipation. It was only for a moment, but to Mabel it sounded like the ticking of a time bomb about to explode.
“But, I only drink tea,” she said.
There was a glimmer in Abe’s eye.
“Then tea it is.”
“Okay,” Mabel said.
Mabel nodded in approval.
“I better get back to work.”
Anxious to retreat, she grabbed the book cart and headed towards the elevator. Her white-knuckled grip around the handle left fingernail impressions on the palms of her hands.
An ominous, yet romantic, iron gargoyle hung over the library’s dark oak doors. Mabel stood beneath it. She coughed into her hand to check her breath. The smell screamed for a breath mint from the stash always tucked away in her pocket.
The lawyer bought two teas from a vendor. He handed the library assistant her cup.
“Careful, it’s hot.”
“Thank you.” Mabel didn’t make eye contact.
As they walked through the busy park, she kept a steady gaze forward. The brisk wind blew orange and red leaves to the ground. They crunched with each step.
“So Mabel, how long have you worked at the library?”
“About five years.”
“Five years? That’s a long time. You must enjoy your work.”
“It’s okay. Everyone is very nice and my hours are flexible.”
“Oh. Do you do something else?”
Mabel’s head turned, her eyes narrowed in on Abe. “Why? Why are you asking me?”
“Just making small talk. That’s all.”
Mabel noticed the sudden uneasiness in his tone. She looked away.
“Oh God. I’m sorry for snapping. I’m so sorry,” Mabel said.
“It’s okay,” Abe replied.
“No really, I’m sorry.”
“I get it. You are sorry.”
“Just as long as you know. I really am truly sorry.”
“Mabel, stop repeating yourself. It’s fine.”
She glanced at him. He smiled at her.
“Well, it’s just that sometimes I have to stay home because…because of…I mean…sometimes I have to take care of my mother.”
“Oh. So you live with your mom?”
Mabel’s cheeks turned red and set her ears on fire. She wanted to run from Abe’s inquiries but she mustered up the courage to change the subject.
“So what do you do?”
“Well, you already know that I am a lawyer. I practice for a small law firm and we’re prepping for a big case,” Abe said, blowing away the steam rising from his cup. “Mabel, I was wondering…well I was thinking…would you like to go to dinner with me this weekend?”
She stopped short. Tea spilled from the cup but she ignored the discomfort from the hot drink and kept a firm hold.
“What? Go out?” A storm of chills poured through her body. “I’ve got to get back to work.” She threw the unfinished drink into a garbage can and started back towards the library. Abe followed.
“Wait. Please stop. I didn’t mean to upset you.”
Mabel gave in and turned back, but shielded herself with crossed arms. “I really must get back to work. My break is up.”
“I didn’t mean to upset you. I would just like to get to know you better. That is all. I swear that’s all,” Abe said.
But her panic won out. She raced across the street.
Back inside, Mabel asked to leave early. Her supervisor was used to this request. He knew her circumstances when he hired her from the wellness center.
By noon Mabel was home. She went straight to her room and fell onto her bed. Mabel pulled her blanket over her body. She hugged her pillow across her chest like a little girl holding her dolly.
A couple of hours later she woke up. Mabel could feel the remains of tears in the crease of her neck. It was late afternoon, but her day was over. She changed into a large t-shirt and wrapped herself in her gray cashmere blanket. It was old and on its last thread but it still fit her just right. She turned the television on for company but faced the wall.
The next morning, like clockwork, Mabel awoke, showered, dressed, and headed towards the kitchen. She poured herself a glass of orange juice and then headed to the cupboard. There they were, on the first shelf, in a nice neat row: her medications.
She first grabbed for the bottle on the far left–the light blue pills with a subtle haze of gray running through them. The color reminded her of the sky at dusk–not yet vibrant, still a soft twilight. Mabel called them her “Good Morning Sunshine” pills since it was their job to wake her up. She took two every morning. They were the ones that caused her constant stale breath.
Next there were the white gelatin capsules. Only one was required. The smooth, shiny shell contained a white pick-me-up powder inside. Mabel called it her “Put On a Happy Face” pill. She liked the hunter green stripe wrapped around its bottom, or top, depending which way Mabel held the gel cap. The color looked like the leaves she would push aside if on an adventure through a forest.
The last tablets of the bunch were the ones to keep Mabel’s anxiety level even. These were her Zen drugs. One was supposed to be enough, and while she took the maximum dosage, it never chased away all her fears. The tablet lay in her palm. It had rigid horizontal carvings like tribal sculptures from an exotic jungle. Thoughts of swimming naked underneath waterfalls sent chills down her spine.
Mabel took her cocktail of mood-enhancers and chased them down with her juice. She could hear Estelle’s slippers smacking the hardwood floor with each step. The short plump woman with tomato red hair, that required a weekly wash and set, walked through the door. Early mornings were always better for Estelle. Her breathing was usually normal upon waking. This morning she wore a stylish light blue housedress with matching lace trimming around the collar. Her eyes and lips were painted to perfection. She forwent any accessories other than a small diamond solitaire around her neck. It was a family heirloom that had been handed down from mother to daughter as far back as three generations. Mabel remembered the only time Estelle let her wear it was thirty years ago at her bat-mitzvah. It sparkled against her red velvet dress with the white Peter Pan collar.
“Good morning Mabel. How are you on this fine morning?” Estelle sat down at the kitchen table covered with a white, eyelet tablecloth.
Mabel, silent, put on the teapot.
“I noticed you came home early yesterday. I don’t like it when you don’t let me know you are in the house. When you come home you should always tell me.”
Mabel didn’t respond.
“Regardless, are you okay? Did something happen yesterday? Did you get sick at work?”
Mabel, still quiet, pulled out an elegant cup and saucer from the cabinet and grabbed a teaspoon from the drawer. Estelle liked to drink her morning tea from her wedding China. Her mantra was, “Start the day off with a touch of class.” Mabel placed the dishes in front of her mother along with an assortment of tea bags.
Estelle, annoyed by her daughter’s unresponsiveness, knocked on the table. “Hello? Did you hear me? You could answer me. I’d take a grunt if necessary.”
Mabel faced her mother.
“I’m okay I guess.”
Estelle grabbed her daughter’s hands and looked into her eyes. “Well yesterday is over and today will be better, right?”
She smiled at her frowning face; the boiling kettle interrupted the tender moment. Mabel turned the stove off while Estelle tore open an Earl Grey.
“So do you have any exciting plans for today, Babes?”
“I have to go to work,” Mabel said as she poured the water into her mother’s cup.
“After work, dear?”
“Well, once you get home we need to plan for your birthday. It’s not everyday you turn forty-three. Have you thought about what you want to do?”
Mabel had thought about it. She wished for a huge party with all her friends at a fancy restaurant in the city, but then she remembered she didn’t have any friends.
“I don’t really care what we do,” she said.
“Mabel put a smile on your face for heaven’s sake. You always have a sour puss,” Estelle said.
“Mom, I have to go to work. Try to go for a walk around the block. But make sure to take your inhaler or, better yet, your oxygen. Ya know, it’s not like paparazzi are hiding in the bushes. No one is waiting to photograph you with those tubes up your nose,” Mabel said.
“Yes, yes. I will walk today. I walked twice around the cul-de-sac yesterday. I’m gonna be skinny soon.” Estelle raised her arms in the air and shimmied her hips from side-to-side.
Mabel smirked at her mother wobbling in her chair. “You’d be a lot better off if you would take better care of yourself like the doctor said to do.”
She grabbed her bag and kissed her mother good-bye on her forehead. But before she walked out the door, Mabel turned and said, “I’m sorry I didn’t let you know I was home yesterday.” Estelle blew her daughter a kiss.
Once she heard the back door shut, Estelle counted to ten and walked over to the sink. She poured out her tea and grabbed a Coke from the refrigerator along with a bag of pinwheel cookies from the pantry.
There were no books to log in and no one was waiting to check out, so Mabel scanned through the latest edition of Vogue on her cell phone. Visions of wearing the cutting edge fashions and traveling the world swam around her head.
A voice pulled Mabel from her thoughts. “Hello, Mabel,” Abe said as he removed his knit cap and patted down his hair.
Embarrassed by yesterday’s behavior, Mabel resolved to have a conversation with this man.
“How are you today?” Abe said.
“Well, I actually hoped to see you today. I wanted to tell you how sorry I am about rushing off yesterday. I overreacted but I was caught off guard,” Mabel said.
“Really, I should be the one to apologize,” Abe said. “I feel like I was a bit too forward. I rushed things and I’m terrible at stuff like this. I just seemed to have botched it.” He looked upstairs. “I should get to work. Have a nice day Mabel.” Abe turned and walked away. Mabel stood still, mouth cracked open, stunned at the prospect of an actual suitor.
Mabel was assigned to clean out the backroom but when her break came, she sprinted up the stairs. There sat Abe, surrounded by books, deep in concentration, typing away on his laptop.
Mabel slipped a mint in her mouth, gathered herself, and walked over.
She tapped Abe on his shoulder. “Excuse me?”
He turned. The flurries in her stomach were in control and before Abe could speak, Mabel burst. “My birthday is Friday and my mother wants to have a birthday dinner for me. It will probably just be my mom and me but we will have cake.” Mabel required a gasp of air before she could continue. “I would very much like for you to join us.”
“Well, happy birthday. I’d love to join you and your mother. It sounds like it will be a fun time,” Abe said.
“Really? Okay, great. I will let you know when I see you next, or I guess I could call you.” Mabel reached for her phone. “Oh wait…shoot! I don’t have my phone on me.”
“I have mine. Give me your number.”
Mabel realized she had never given a man her phone number before. “Give…you…my number?”
“Well yes. So I can call you.”
“Yeah…um…right…sure…my number…” She reached for the top button of her sweater but before she began to pull on it, Abe responded.
“Ya know what? Why don’t I give you my business card? Then you can call me once you figure out the details.”
“Your business card? You have a business card?” She slapped her head in embarrassment. “Of course you do. Why wouldn’t you? Anyways, I’ll call you.”
“I look forward to it,” Abe said.
Mabel walked away–head up, eyes intent.
Mabel drove into the parking lot. She took the elevator to the twelfth floor and rang the doorbell to Dr. Angela Walters’ office. Usually she sat on the cushy leather couch across from the psychiatrist, but today she stood in front of the window staring out at the view of downtown.
Quiet at first, Dr. Walters knew not to push her patient. “A man asked me out,” Mabel finally said.
“Really? Did you say yes?” The doctor asked.
Mabel continued gazing at the skyline. “At first I ran away but today I asked him to join my mom and me for my birthday party.”
“Well that’s great Mabel,” Dr. Walters said.
“Is it? I was so angry with myself for running away and then I was happy that I asked him to my birthday dinner. But now, now I am terrified.” Mabel turned and faced her doctor. “How do I explain my hospital stays or my meds or my lack of experience? How? Do you know? Cause I sure don’t.”
Mabel’s eyes locked with her doctor’s. “I am middle-aged and I’ve never been out with a man. I live with my mother. I’m just not normal. And what if he tries to kiss me good-night or…”
Impending doom overtook Mabel. Her breathing became short. Dr. Walters led Mabel to the couch and placed a glass of water in front of her.
“Mabel, I need you to slowly breathe in and out.” She followed the doctor’s directions and gradually calmed down.
“Why don’t you first have dinner with him? You are not required to tell him anything nor do anything that makes you uncomfortable. Mabel, you deserve to be happy just like anyone else. You do know that, right?”
Wednesdays were Olive Garden night. Mother and daughter split the spaghetti with meatballs along with extra sauce on the side. Estelle would order a Coke–her first of the day she always claimed–and Mabel had water.
“Did you hear about Cantor Segal?” Estelle said spinning her pasta around her fork.
“No, what happened?”
“He’s leaving the shul and no one knows why or they’re not telling.”
Mabel, focused on her plate, stabbed at a meatball, slicing it in half. “Mom, I need to talk to you about something other than the synagogue.”
Estelle, mouth full, “What’s up, Babes?”
“A man asked me out.”
Estelle’s mouth dropped open, Mabel noticed bits of chewed
pasta sitting on her tongue.
“Abe Stein,” Mabel responded.
Estelle took a swig of her drink and swished it around her mouth. She pulled the bowl of sauce towards her and grabbed a bread stick from the basket. “Abe Stein? When? Where?”
“He’s been at the library working on a case.”
“He’s a lawyer? Is he a partner?” Estelle said in between bites of the bread.
“For heaven’s sake, I don’t know. Does it matter?” Mabel said.
“I guess not.” Estelle wiped a drop of sauce from her chin.
“It doesn’t matter. I told him no. But today I asked him to my birthday dinner.”
“This is wonderful. So you’re interested in Abe?”
“I didn’t say that. But he is definitely interested in me. Me?”
“Why wouldn’t he be interested in you? You’re a lovely woman.” Estelle looked around the room checking to see if anyone was listening. She leaned in close towards her daughter. “I know you have your…issues. But you can’t remain like this. It’s like your father would always say when he was alive, ‘You’re like a gerbil. Round and round you go. Content in your misery.’”
Estelle’s index finger circled in the air like the rodent on its running wheel.
“Don’t call me a gerbil. I hated when he would say that and I hate it even more when you say it and you know I do.”
Mabel tried to take a bite of her meatball but dropped the fork onto her plate. She pushed her dinner away.
“I wanna go home.”
“We just got our food.”
“I don’t care. I wanna go home now.”
Estelle motioned for the check and they hurried out.
Back home, Mabel sat in a bath. The hot water felt soothing against her body. Estelle entered the bathroom with a bottle of pills and a glass of water. “I called Dr. Walters. She said you should take these to help you sleep tonight.”
Mabel didn’t say anything; she just took her medicine.
That night Mabel lay in her bed with the lights off and the TV on mute. The pills hadn’t yet taken effect. Her head filled with the familiar voices of her parents behind closed doors discussing their daughter. Her father’s played on repeat: “The law of averages will work out for her–meshuganah or not.”
Mabel was finishing off her last pill, when Estelle walked into the kitchen. With her best Ethel Merman impression, she belted out “Happy Birthday.” Mabel stood stoneface.
“Oh come on Mabel. It’s your birthday. Aren’t you excited about tonight?”
“I don’t wanna go.”
“I just don’t. Can you call Abe and tell him?”
“No. Absolutely not. You’re a grown woman. You call him. He deserves an explanation.” Estelle stormed towards the door. She pushed it open with a tight fist but stopped and turned before walking through it. “I can’t take this anymore. You go have dinner and cake. Then you come home. If you both like each other, you go out again. This isn’t difficult. Live a little. You just lock yourself in that room. You don’t go anywhere. Don’t meet anyone. What’s gonna happen to you when I’m gone? You’ll end up alone.”
She left but yelled from the den, “Apparently that’s what you want–to be an old maid. Should you buy the cats now or wait until I’m in the coffin?”
Mabel called in sick to work. She pulled Abe’s card from her bag and dialed his number. Before it rang, she ended the call. Instead, she cancelled the evening with a text:
It’s Mabel. Dinner is off. Sorry.
Sending the message did not settle her down. A mental game of Was My Decision Right? ping-ponged back and forth in her head for hours.
The following day, Mabel requested a reassignment to the back office. She refused to go to Shabbat services anymore but was willing to drop Estelle off and pick her up.
The weather outside had turned bitter. Tree branches were bare. Mabel returned home from work, ready for her usual evening with Estelle. Tonight was Chinese take-out.
When she unlocked the back door it wouldn’t fully open. Mabel strained her neck and glimpsed through the crack into the mudroom. A motionless Estelle was lying face down on the floor.
“Oh my God! Oh my God!” Mabel yelled.
She ran to the front of the house. Once inside Mabel hurried to her mother. A pile of wet towels lay next to her. It was laundry day. The dryer door was open waiting to suck the remaining water out of them. Mabel turned Estelle over onto her back. Estelle’s eyes were wide. Chunky liquid was splattered on the front of her housedress and bits of it were stuck to her cheeks. She grabbed a dishcloth lying on the floor and wiped her mother’s face with one hand while dialing for help with the other.
It was Mabel’s first night to go to the synagogue to say Kaddish for her mother. She chose to sit in the middle row, away from Estelle’s regular front seat. When it was time to stand for the prayer, she couldn’t finish it. She stood there, shoulders hunched, tears dampening the pages of her prayer book. By the end of the service, her tissue was soaked and wadded into a ball. While other congregation members stood and chatted, Mabel headed down the aisle alone.
“Hello, Mabel,” a familiar face greeted her at the door.
“Abe. What are you doing here?” She dabbed her nose with the back of her hand, making sure she didn’t feel anything lingering from it. “Do you usually come in the evenings?”
“No. But I knew you would be here. The synagogue office sent out an email about your mother. I am so sorry for your loss.”
“You came tonight for me? That’s so kind of you.”
“That’s what friends do.”
Abe accompanied Mabel to her car. They walked side-by-side with a quiet distance between them until he broke the awkwardness. “What does the bartender say to the hamburger?”
“Is this a joke?” Mabel paused. “Okay. Sure. What?”
“We don’t serve food,” Abe said.
Mabel felt the corners of her mouth turn up. It was her first smile since she found her mother’s lifeless body.
Most nights Abe would join Mabel at the nightly services. He would sit in the back but afterwards they walked to their cars together. The jokes developed into conversations. As the days grew longer and the weather warmed, so did their talks. One evening, while Mabel and Abe were standing outside chatting, her stomach joined in with a loud growl.
“Hungry?” He said.
“I must be,” she said.
“I could use a little something too. May I buy you dinner tonight?”
Mabel’s brow furrowed. “It’s Wednesday, Olive Garden night. My mom and I would always split the spaghetti with meatballs. A Coke for her and extra sauce for dipping breadsticks.”
“Well, I like Coke and spaghetti with meatballs sounds good to me.”
Realizing she didn’t want the evening to end just yet, Mabel accepted Abe’s invitation.
Wednesday dinners at the Olive Garden became the norm for Abe and Mabel. There they would enjoy a friendly evening of food and talk. On some occasions, when the discussions lasted longer than their entrees, they would split a slice of Triple Chocolate Strata.
Mabel had never been to the synagogue’s annual fundraiser. The lobby was filled with congregation members sipping cocktails and nibbling on mini quiches as they admired the auction items on display. She immediately zeroed in on Abe standing by the ballroom’s entryway. She thought he looked dapper in his tuxedo but she did not walk up to him. Instead, Mabel rushed to the bathroom. The evening required one last look in the mirror. She had straightened her curls and left her glasses at home. Her plum satin dress came just above her knees. She dabbed a little more gloss on her lips but noticed something was missing. Mabel reached underneath her collar and pulled out Estelle’s diamond necklace.
She walked back into the crowd and found Abe. He was now standing in the bar admiring the floral centerpiece on one of the tables.
Abe turned. At first he didn’t recognize the woman in front of him.
“Mabel?” She shook her head in acknowledgement. “Wow! You look stunning!”
He reached out his hand to greet her but knocked it against the flowers. The vase swiveled but rebounded before it could fall over. Abe stood petrified like a marble statue but Mabel moved in close. She placed her hands on his arms. A giggle escaped from his mouth. Without hesitation, Mabel leaned in and kissed Abe on the cheek.
Deborah S. Sherman is an English professor and freelance writer. She holds an MFA in Writing from the University of San Francisco.