Those Three Little Words – Wendy Ungar

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The first time I told my Bubbie Tillie about my new boyfriend was shortly after my friend Sigi had set us up. We were sitting in her Montreal kitchen — where else — and I was helping her prepare the brisket for Shabbos dinner. The kitchen was suffused with the warmth of loaves of just-baked challah cooling on the counter.

“I met someone, Bubbie,” I said, as casually as possible.

Tillie kept on with seasoning the roast. “Oh?” She responded just as casually. “Just an anybody someone or a somebody someone?”

It wasn’t customary for us to talk about the men I dated, in part because I didn’t want to get her hopes up, but mainly because I knew she would be calling me every twenty minutes, day and night — except during The Wheel and Jeopardy — for progress reports. But this time I wanted to tell her.

“He’s a somebody someone, a real mensch.”

“A real mensch, eh? So does this mensch have a name? What does he do? Where does he live? What shul does he go to? Do I know his mother? NU?”

Oh boy, here we go. My grandmother fired off her questions like an expert marksman.

“Give me a second, Bubbie! His name is Ken Ephraimovich.” And then I said those three little words that all Jewish grandmothers longed to hear. “He’s a doctor.” I knew she’d stop listening as soon as I spoke them, but I continued anyway. “He’s in his early thirties, and he goes to Beth Shalom. His parents are Bertie and Jerry – I doubt you know them.”

“He’s a doctor? Nu, what kind of a doctor? Not a psychiatrist, I hope. They can be a little nuts.”

“No, not a psychiatrist. A dermatologist. You know, a skin doctor.”

“I know what a dermatologist is. Very nice. I mean it’s not a cardiologist – always good to have one of those in the family – but a dermatologist I can live with. What else. So why isn’t he married? What’s wrong with him?”

Since there was no vodka within easy reach I pulled an end off a fresh challah loaf and stuffed it in my mouth. Bubbie gave me a disapproving look which I immediately returned with one of my own.  “What? That’s why we have two, no?”  I took a deep breath and continued, “Don’t worry, there’s nothing wrong with him. He, um, he was married. Well, he’s going through a divorce.” I held my breath.

“A divorce? Why? How long was he married? What happened?”

“I don’t know, Bubbie. I don’t think it’s any of my business.”

‘Well, Hanna, if this man is going to be your somebody, and it sounds like he might be, then you better make it your business.”

“He’s a good person. That’s all you need to know.” I said the words to my grandmother knowing them to be true, although we’d only been out together three times. Of course I wanted to know what happened with his marriage but I was determined to let him tell me in his own good time. Besides, Sigi had all the dirt and could fill me in whenever I wanted.

“So — when am I going to meet this good person, this Dr. Somebody, The Mensch?”

A week later I was driving Bubbie Tillie to the Van Horne Shopping Center on a late Sunday morning to meet Ken for lunch.  I could feel the nervousness in my fingers as I gripped the steering wheel. Deep breath, deep breath. Why was I so nervous? Bubbie had met my boyfriends before, and of all the men she had met, she had approved of exactly none of them. But I never sought her approval before – it hadn’t mattered to me what she thought. But now, with Ken, I realized just how much it did. I looked over at my grandmother. She had the sun visor down and was checking her lipstick in the mirror. She had worn the same shade of Cherry Ruby Red for… for… well, for as long as I’ve known her, always applied in the same generous fashion so as to leave the perfect full double-lipped imprint on whosever cheek she felt had earned her affection that day. Would Ken be honoured with one her lipstick tattoos? I had hoped yes, for my sake, and no, for his.

Bubbie’s blondish whitish slightly bluish hair was perfectly coiffed and lacquered rock hard by a generous double coating of extra strength VO5. The weather forecast had called for a chance of rain so why take a chance, my grandmother had shouted to me from her powder room as she sprayed on the extra layer just before we left her apartment to come to the restaurant. “So what do you need that for?” I asked her pointing to the umbrella she grabbed on our way out the door. She gave me one her looks, but her extra thick lipstick betrayed the smile lingering underneath.

I drove into the entrance of the parking lot for the plaza style shopping centre hoping for the impossible –  a parking spot close to the restaurant.

“Bubbie, why don’t I let you off and then I’ll go find a spot.”

My grandmother snapped the visor back into place. “What — you want I should walk into the restaurant alone? With everyone looking? No thank you.”

“But I may not find something in the parking lot, I may have to park a few blocks away.”

Bubbie Tillie suddenly started waving her arm frantically, pointing. “Look! Someone’s pulling out! Quick, quick!”

She was right, there was someone leaving about fifty feet away.

“Hurry! You want someone else should get it?”

“Bubbie, I can’t drive fast, we’re in a parking lot. There are people with…” I was going to say walkers, “…strollers.”

“Closer, closer.”

“I have to give him some room to back out.”

“No, just block him a little until he needs to pull all the way out. Then everyone knows it’s your spot.”

I did what my grandmother asked, knowing the pointlessness of arguing, giving the poor shlub trying to back out an ‘it’s not my fault’ shrug.

I helped my grandmother out of the car and walked her slowly toward the restaurant. She was so much shorter than me – when had she become so small? I had never really noticed before, probably because when I visited I was always sitting and she was always standing. Standing and fussing. And now as we walked together I noticed her effort to keep up with me. I wasn’t walking very fast but her gait was laboured. She must have been in some pain. She had never said anything to me about it, and Bubbie was not shy about complaining. So it must have been very new, or just very bad. I also noticed she was wearing her best  — and only – imitation Armani suit. The one she had bought on sale at Reitman’s five years ago but never went out of style. She rarely wore it.

‘You look really nice, Bubbie.” I said smiling, realizing for the first time that she too was trying to make an impression.

A few minutes later we arrived at the entrance of the restaurant. The Brown Derby was really more a diner than a restaurant. The dishes were white, thick and cheap — the kind that never broke no matter how hard they clattered to the floor. The red and yellow flowers clumped into a faux crystal vase on each table were plastic and the food wasn’t much better than the flowers. But for the hordes of Montreal Jews and French-Canadians that crowded between its walls every Sunday for a smoked meat on rye, you’d think it had earned three Michelin stars.

We squeezed into the entrance where at least ten other people crowded together in more of a mob than a line, waiting to be seated. The restaurant didn’t take reservations. It had at one time but abandoned the practice after a certain Mrs. Murray Garfinkel had threatened to club the hostess with her cane after she was told they couldn’t find her reservation. Her words to the hostess had become legendary: Don’t you know who I am? I’m Mrs. Murray Garfinkel! MRS. MURRAY GARFINKEL!

Ever since then it’s been first come, loudest served. Standing with the crowd, the familiar scent of rancid coleslaw greeted me. This place always had the same smell – which may not in fact have been the food, but the other patrons waiting for a table. It was hard to tell which. I stood on my tip toes and looked past the crowd trying to spot Ken. He said he would meet us here. An arm suddenly waved in my direction from in front of the crowd and there he was. Thank God. He beckoned us over, my grandmother using the crook of her elbow to push aside all the people in front of us.

“I have a table,” were the first words out of Ken’s mouth. These were probably my grandmother’s second favourite phrase after ‘He’s a doctor’. I sighed in relief. Maybe this will go better than I thought. No, what am I thinking, of course it won’t. As I followed Ken to the table, I whispered a quick, “I’m sorry” in his ears.

He looked at me quizzically, “For what?”

“You’ll see.”

After a quick and kissless introduction, we sat down at the booth that Ken had been able to get, don’t ask me how. He politely took our coats and hung them on the hooks on the post at the corner of the booth. My grandmother said nothing, just looked around sharply at every table around us, appearing unimpressed.

“What’s the matter, Bubbie? Wasn’t it nice of Ken to come early and get this booth for us?”

“Enh. It’s a booth. Nothing special.”

“I’m sorry,” Ken responded, “Would you like to me to try to get another table, Mrs. Rozenblum?”

Before my grandmother could answer, I said, “Absolutely not. This is great. Thank you.”

“I haven’t been here in a while,” Ken said. “I’d forgotten how… crowded it could be. Next time let me make the reservation. There are some excellent French restaurants on Crescent Street that I’m sure you’d enjoy.”

“Crescent-shmescent. What, The Brown Derby isn’t good enough for you?”

“No, not at all. I just want you to be comfortable.”

I spoke over my grandmother’s voice; I wasn’t going to let her get her hooks into Ken, poking and prodding searching for a weakness. I should’ve warned him. He was no match for her. “This is perfect, Ken. My grandmother’s just upset because she usually sits at a table in the centre aisle of the dining room.”

“Where I can get the waitress’ attention,” my grandmother said.

“Where she can see everybody, who they’re with, who they’re not with, and where everybody can see her.” I corrected her.

“Is that so terrible? That I should want people me to see me and my granddaughter and her new doctor boyfriend?” Bubbie Tillie replied loudly.

Shh, Bubbie, everyone can hear you.”

As I sat and listened to Ken gallantly answer every question my grandmother threw at him, I began to relax. He remained unfazed throughout the entire interrogation. Maybe it was good that I hadn’t warned him. He had no time to prepare. Watching how he reacted under fire only made me like him more. My grandmother ran out of questions just as the food came. As she started to amply salt her fried filet of cod I looked her way to see if I could guess her impression of him. She looked back at me and from her two raised eyebrows and the slightest nod of her second chin I knew that Ken had passed the test.

During the meal Bubbie Tillie only sent her food back twice, a very good sign, and in each instance Ken had gotten the waitress’ attention immediately and without questioning my grandmother’s reasons. This impressed her and me even more. When Tillie ordered apple pie a la mode for dessert and insisted Ken share hers, he did so without hesitation, even though he had divulged on our first date his intolerance to lactose.

Some women fall in love with men because of their looks, their bank account or their sense of humour. For me, it was seeing Ken charm my grandmother, something only a real mensch could do. I was in love before the ice cream had even begun to melt.

 

This story is an excerpt from Wendy Ungar’s yet-to-be-published-but-hope-springs-eternal novel, THE BOOK OF SAMUEL. Previous excerpts qualified as a finalist for the 2020 Penguin Random House Student Fiction Award and as a semi-finalist for the 2017 Literary Manhattan Geo-lit award. Additional excerpts have been published in The Jewish Literary Journal (2018) and CJN Literary  (2019). Her non-fiction has appeared in Adirondac Magazine and the Appalachia Journal. Her short story, “Where the Trail Ends” was selected for the collection, New Wilderness Voices (2017).

 

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