It had been seven years since my wife Marcia ran off with my old friend Jake Teitelbaum.
Jake Teitelbaum and I, Michael Stein, were rabbinical students together. After that, we were both Reform rabbis in Northern New Jersey, living only twenty miles apart. Jake took to the rabbinate like a duck to water, perhaps because he did not worry about matters of faith. I on the other hand was increasingly concerned that my faith was not strong enough, and eventually I felt like an impostor. I must admit I envied Jake. For him, being a rabbi was simply a job and, so far as I know, he did it well enough.
If Jake had gotten married, this story might have been different. But just as he breezed through the rabbinate, he breezed through his relationships. I on the other hand married Marcia as soon as I was ordained. She was a freelance editor I met at a party and was captivated instantly by her dark-eyed beauty, her humor and her incisiveness. Poor Marcia; she did not know what she was getting into. Being a rabbi’s wife was hard for her to begin with—it is, after all, an unpaid job—but being married to an increasingly unhappy rabbi made her miserable. Somehow our marriage survived many years, no doubt largely because we had a daughter, Talia, and because in her own way Marcia is very stubborn.
In the end, I suppose that Marcia’s taking up with Jake, a handsome and charismatic man, was not so surprising. Marcia and I had often socialized together with Jake, who was sometimes joined by whatever woman he was seeing at the time, and just as often not. Looking back, I think I could see the love growing between them. He was Marcia’s opposite, and opposites attract. But Marcia’s leaving did come as a shock to me. No one is ready for someone to leave them.
Marcia was the first woman Jake took seriously. He abandoned the rabbinate for her sake. After my divorce from Marcia, Jake married her. He sold insurance for a time, but in the end he and Marcia opened a bed and breakfast in the Adirondacks. As for me, I finally left the rabbinate too. The end of my marriage made leading a synagogue—a place where marriage and family are celebrated—unendurable. I find all transitions difficult, but I managed to become a therapist. I like my new career well enough. My practice is located only a few miles from the synagogue I once served. Sometimes former congregants are my clients. One or two times they told me that they missed me as a rabbi. I did not know what to say.
It is tiring to feel angry. Eventually I forgave Marcia and Jake. After all, I would not have wanted to be married to me during the years I was a rabbi. Meanwhile I have had a steady partner for a few years, a high school teacher named Beth who, like me, is divorced. I suppose we are both shy of marriage, but perhaps we will come to that decision one day. We are in no hurry.
So far as forgiveness goes, my daughter Talia is another matter. Marcia had left when Talia was only eighteen, beginning her freshman year in college. She never reconciled herself to her mother. To give Marcia credit, she tried to reestablish relations with Talia on any number of occasions. Talia hung up on her mother’s many phone calls and did not answer her texts or emails. But Talia was not crippled by her disdain for her mother. She led a good life, successfully negotiating college and becoming an elementary school teacher. Fortunately she did not take after me; she loved her first career. Furthermore, she lights candles every Friday night, whereas I ceased Jewish practice years ago. Maybe it is Talia who is now the keeper of the faith.
When my divorced clients tell me that they are thinking of making peace with their former spouses, I encourage them. I took my own advice. When Marcia sent me an email asking me how I was doing, I gave a full report on my life as well as Talia’s. In this way a new relationship developed between us, a sort of long distance friendship. At first I did not tell Talia that I was in regular contact with Marcia. When I finally let it slip, Talia shrugged. I asked her if she would consider contacting her mother. No, and don’t ask me again, she said. Ironically, her stubbornness was just like Marcia’s.
And then, cancer.
I received a call from Marcia. She told me that a lump had been found in her breast. It was biopsied and found to be malignant. Further scanning revealed that the cancer had begun to spread to her lymph nodes. She already had a mastectomy and begun chemotherapy. The long-term prognosis was unknown. Marcia said that she refused to think beyond one day at a time—a very Marcia thing to say.
Would I please tell Talia? she asked.
At first, Talia said she did not know what to do with the information. I told her that her mother simply wanted her to know.
Talia started to cry. She scrunched up her face the way she did when she was a little girl.
“She’s forcing my hand.”
“She didn’t choose to get cancer,” I said. “And she didn’t ask you to contact her.”
“Then why did she want me to know?”
“Talia. Be an adult. If your mother is seriously ill it’s a fact of life you cannot ignore.”
Needless to say I was surprised when, only a week later, Talia suggested that we go visit Marcia. That would mean, of course, that we would be visiting Jake as well. I spent a day thinking about it. I wondered if it could end up a disaster, not least because Marcia would feel sick from her chemo. But I made the call; Marcia answered. When I told her it was Talia’s idea to visit, there was silence at her end. I thought I could hear Marcia take a long, deep breath. Then she said she would call back. Only half an hour later, it was Jake who called. He said that soon Marcia would be taking a break after the first round of chemo, and that we could be their guests at the B and B for two days. They would make sure not to book the place for any other guests while we visited. He added that they wanted Beth to come also. I was touched by this, but it made sense. Beth—calm, straightforward Beth—could act as an anchor for Talia and me. After checking in with both my daughter and Beth, I called back and accepted. The visit was set for the last week in June, after public schools closed for the summer and teachers like Talia and Beth were free, but before the heart of the tourist season from which Marcia and Jake made their livelihood. I cleared my therapy schedule for that week.
During the long drive up the New York State Thruway and then over winding country roads, Talia and Beth spent most of the time talking shop: lesson planning, principals, boards of education, difficult colleagues. That was OK with me. I enjoyed the feeling of being with my own thoughts, escaping the suburban landscape and looking forward to mountains and lakes and endless trees. Memories of my marriage and Talia’s childhood kept popping into my head. Once, for example, we three went to Miami, where I was supposed to attend a rabbis’ convention. I ducked out of many of the events and we took day trips to the beach, to Key Largo, to a parrot zoo and even to the Everglades, where the sight of a huge, long-necked turtle at the side of the road made up for the mosquitos. Talia squealed with delight when she saw it.
The bed and breakfast was easy to spot, its large sign—Mountain Joy B and B—near the side of the road. It was a large Victorian, beige with black shutters and a white cupola on the roof, not the kind of house one expected to find on a rural mountain route. The place looked like it had been painted yesterday. On its immaculate lawn stood Marcia, waving. I had half expected to be shocked by her appearance, but apart from looking seven years older and on the thin side she did not seem much the worse for her cancer. Despite the round of chemo she still had her hair, albeit hair that had much more white in it than the last time I had seen it.
We pulled up a drive and parked. Marcia followed us. As soon as we left the car she ran up to Talia and seized her in her arms. Talia let her mother hold on for several long moments. Next, Marcia offered her hand to Beth and gave her a warm smile. Last, she gave me a brief hug, including several affectionate pats on the back. I handed her a liquor store bag containing two expensive bottles of wine, one red and one white.
“So, where’s Jake?” I asked.
“Down in the basement fooling with the boiler.”
“Our hot water also comes from the boiler. It was on the fritz this morning, but Jake seems to be handling it. We couldn’t let you guys be stuck with cold showers.”
“Jake fixing a boiler? I can’t quite picture it.”
“He’s got handy these past years. You have to be in this business. You can’t always wait for the plumbing and heating man to show up. Let’s go in. Can I take a piece of luggage?”
“We’re fine. We all packed light.”
“Well, we’ll be serving you dinner in a couple of hours so don’t worry about food.”
“Dinner?” asked Beth. “This is a bed and breakfast.”
“Marcia,” I said, “We had wanted to take you both out to dinner with us tonight.”
“I still get a little nauseous from the chemo sometimes. A restaurant is a bad place to be sick in. We’ll eat here. Come on. In we go.”
We grabbed our luggage and followed Marcia.
The inside was even more lovely. The wallpaper in the front hall was as Victorian as the house, a busy floral pattern on a light blue background. There was a small table with an elegant mirror hanging over it; both clearly were antiques. Marcia showed us around. A door on the right of the hall led to the dining room, which was linked to the kitchen by a door and a pass-through window. A door across the hall opened on a cozy parlor with shelves of various paperbacks and magazines. At the end of the hall were the stairs to the second floor. The bannisters gleamed with polish.
A door under the stairs opened and Jake appeared. I was a little shocked to see how much he had aged. Though his hair was still brown and abundant with only small patches of white near his ears, his face was deeply lined. He was in a t-shirt that revealed a pot belly. He wore jeans that were too baggy. The Jake I had known would not have been caught dead in ill-fitting pants.
“Sorry I wasn’t there to greet you, folks. Wow, look at all of you. Talia, you’re gorgeous. And you must be Beth. You’re pretty gorgeous yourself. You look good too, Michael. I’m glad you all came. I’d offer my hand but it’s greasy. Let me go clean up. I’ll see you soon.”
Jake disappeared through a door just beyond the parlor. I spent a moment staring at the door after it closed. There he was, the terrible Jake who had stolen my wife, now with greasy hands and looking like a mess. I felt a strange relief.
“Can I get you anything?” Marcia asked. “Coffee? Tea? Or do you want to go right to your rooms to freshen up after your long journey?”
I certainly needed a breather. Beth said she did too. Talia said she was going to take a long walk. She claimed it was to stretch her legs after the car trip. Marcia led Beth and me upstairs, where she showed us a large bedroom that overlooked a lovely yard and gardens in the rear. Talia, she said, would have the room that faced the front of the house; the room between hers and ours remained empty. I thought this was a sensitive touch on Marcia’s part.
Beth and I took a nap in the huge bed. I dreamt that I was accidentally married to both Marcia and Beth, and was trying to figure out what to do about it. I woke to find Beth lying with her hands under her head, staring at the ceiling fan.
I asked her what she thought of the place, by way of taking a few moments to calm down.
“Your ex is impressive. I don’t think I could manage a business like this. All those details to keep track of.”
“You can manage a class of horny adolescents. This is a piece of cake compared to that.”
“Oh come on. Did you have any idea Marcia was a good manager when you were married to her?”
“She managed the money, but couldn’t manage me.”
“I know I’ve hardly said three words to her, but I like her already.”
“She clearly likes you.”
We lay there a while longer. Then Beth changed into a fresh shirt and we went downstairs.
Jake, who was now wearing a button-down shirt and chinos, was putting out place settings in the dining room. Beth and I offered to help. I could make out quiet voices from the parlor: Marcia and Talia. It was all I could do to force myself not to listen. Soon a chain formed, Jake handing Beth plates and glasses from the kitchen pass-through window, who in turn handed them to me. The table was done quickly. Last to come out were goblets.
“Some wine before dinner?” said Jake, coming through the kitchen door with our bottles of wine, one in each hand. “Red or white?”
Beth and I picked up a goblet from the table. I took red and she took white. Then Jake put the bottles on the table, took a goblet and poured himself a glass of red.
“L’chaim,” he said. We all drank.
Marcia and Talia walked in. Marcia wore a pained smile; Talia’s face was blank. The two women accepted goblets of white wine.
“Jake, is everything ready in the kitchen?” Marcia asked.
“All warmed up.”
“Then let’s eat.”
It was a fancy dinner: French onion soup, eggplant parmesan, a salad garnished with curly leaf parsley. Dessert was ice cream from a local creamery. It all tasted wonderful, though I could not but notice that Marcia ate little. We talked about everything but cancer: life in the Adirondacks, our professions (I made a few lame therapist jokes), the far-flung Jewish community in the mountains, various comical or difficult B and B guests of the past.
Talia joined in less than everyone else, though she did speak about some of the challenges of teaching second grade. She rarely looked at her mother, which pained and annoyed me. Our coming to visit had, after all, been her idea. I debated with myself whether to take her aside and tell her to be more gracious. But Talia was an adult, and I had no idea what she and Marcia had said to each other in the parlor. I decided to just let things play themselves out.
After dinner, Marcia proposed that we all take a walk up the road. Talia claimed she was tired and wanted to go up to her room for the night. She offered to help clean up first, but Marcia told her to go get rest. After Talia left, I looked at Marcia with raised eyebrows. She waved dismissively.
We four strolled up the road and back. As it grew darker, we went to the rear yard and sat in lawn chairs. Beth broke the silence about cancer by asking Marcia how she was feeling. Marcia said that she did miss her breast—she said it as lightly as if she were talking about a lost earring—and that the first round of chemo had not been as bad as she had feared.
Mike and Beth were the first to file back into the house, through a rear door that led to the kitchen. Suddenly Marcia took my elbow. She put her mouth near my ear.
“Michael, I need to talk to you. Would you mind terribly getting up very early with me before everyone else does? Say at six? Meet in the kitchen?”
“I’ll be there.”
“Thanks. Don’t say anything to Beth about it unless you have to.”
“I’ll have the coffee ready.”
When Beth and I went to bed, I set my watch to beep at 5:45 and kept it on my wrist.
Marcia poured the coffee. We sat at the round kitchen table.
“How are you holding up, Marcia?”
She sipped her coffee for a long moment.
“It’s still like it is happening to somebody else. It was only a short time ago that they found the lump. Then, almost before I could take a breath, I lost my breast. Then the first chemo. My brain never caught up with any of this. Ask me again in a month and I might have a coherent answer for you.”
I tried to think of something comforting to say, but it was pointless. Marcia would see right through it.
“I’m so glad you’re here, Michael. Jake has been wonderful beyond belief. But it’s nice to have the two men who have loved me best here in my house at once. It’s a great gift having Talia here too, especially since it was her idea to come.”
“I heard you two talking. In the parlor.”
“It was awful. Talia dumped all her feelings on me about my leaving. I’d never quite realized the extent of how angry and bitter she still is.”
“She should not have done that. It wasn’t fair.”
“No, you’re wrong there. She cleared the decks. The words were said. I hurt her, Michael. Both of you, of course, but her most of all. Cancer doesn’t erase that.”
I reached over and squeezed her wrist.
“Michael, I am very happy you have Beth. She’s a good egg. Marry her, OK? Don’t fart around. Just do it. None of us knows how long we have.”
“We talk about it now and then.”
“Good. Michael, here is what I wanted to ask you. Would you consider doing my funeral? We don’t have a rabbi here. You were always great at funerals. As my current husband I’d never ask Jake and, besides, he’d probably not do a great eulogy. Not nearly as good as you would. You always know just the right thing to say.”
I had to take a very long breath.
“Yes. But do you think that’s alright with Jake?”
“It’s not his call. I think it’s your place to do it. You’re the husband of my youth, Michael. You are the father of my child.”
I felt tears run down my cheeks. I covered my face with a napkin. I was aware of Marcia brushing her fingers through my hair.
Then I noticed the growing chorus of dawn birds. When I used to be observant, this would be my time for putting on tefillin and davening the shacharit morning service. Right now I wished I could still do that, but shacharit did not belong to me anymore.
When I got back up to the room, Beth was awake and reading a novel she had borrowed from the parlor. I got in bed beside her. She held the book with one hand and put the other on my thigh. She did not ask where I had been.
We all spent that sunlit morning quietly. Beth and Marcia lay side by side on lounge chairs in the yard. They seemed to be developing a bond; I suppose this was natural for two women who had shared life with the same man. Talia lay in the middle of the yard on a towel, taking in the sun. Jake and I took a long walk up the road, occasionally making way for passing vehicles. Once we saw a deer standing at the edge of a patch of woods; it gave us a long, tired look and then bounded back into the trees. Jake looked better than the day before now that he was out in the fresh air, but the age lines around his mouth and eyes were etched even deeper by the sunlight. We did not say much. I thought of a line from the Talmud: whoever speaks too much brings about sin. Definitely a line written by a man.
After a light lunch of sandwiches, we piled into our cars and headed to a state park where there was a lookout that included a grand, wide Adirondack view. I was familiar with the Catskills and their rounded hills. These mountains looked as if they had ambitions to be Western peaks, with their pointy, jagged tops. I watched several hawks hovering like kites without strings, soaring free and yet never getting far from one another. Above the birds, a giant puffy cloud cruised slowly by. Then I did what people usually do: I gathered everyone for a cellphone photo. Somehow, by extending my arm as far as I could, I managed to take a selfie with the five of us with the mountains visible from behind. Then I convinced Jake and Marcia to be in another few photos, and Talia and Beth in a few more. Beth insisted on taking one of me, Talia and Marcia. Talia put her arm around her mother’s shoulder.
The park also had a small lake where Jake and Marcia liked to go. It was not much more than a pond, but was majestic in its own way. It was lined with pines that were reflected beautifully on the surface of the water. I heard a fish jump. Somewhere a bullfrog began its low, hoarse call. Above the tree line the slopes of the nearest mountains were like a painted backdrop to an opera.
“There’s a blue heron who comes here sometimes,” said Marcia. “This is his territory. I love to watch him dive for fish. All this lake needs is a loon, but maybe it’s too small for that.”
Before we had left for our trip upstate, Marcia had emailed to suggest we take our bathing suits on the chance we would like to brave lake water still not quite warmed up from winter. I am no swimmer and did not bother to take trunks, but Beth and Talia took their suits and now had them on beneath their clothes. They each brought a towel. Jake and Marcia said they were not going in. They liked more reasonably warm water, they said. I suspected that Marcia’s weakened state was the real reason she was staying out, and that Jake was staying dry in solidarity.
“Well, I’m going in,” said Talia. “Beth, are you coming?”
“I must be crazy, but yes, I am.”
The two women stripped down to their one-piece bathing suits. A lump came to my throat when I looked at my daughter. She was a real honest-to-God woman now, stately and shapely. She was out in the world, ready to attract men who might love her or men who might hurt her, or both.
Talia waded in up to her knees.
“Oh God, this is cold,” she yelled. “Here I go.”
She raised her arms, jumped and, porpoise-like, dove forward. She swam toward the middle of the lake with angry strokes. Beth waded in up to her waist, held her nose and dipped her head under, then began to swim. She did some easygoing breaststrokes, her head above the water.
“Too cold for me,” she called. “I’m going back in, Talia.”
Talia was getting smaller, going farther out than I was comfortable with. Meanwhile Beth got to shallow water, sloshed onto the beach and grabbed her towel. While she wiped herself down, the rest of us watched Talia’s disappearing head and arms.
“Is she going to be alright out there?” I said to no one in particular.
“Sure she is,” said Marcia. “I taught her how to swim, remember?”
I could just make out Talia turning and starting to head back to shore. I felt relief wash over me.
Beth signaled me over to her and ask that I hold her towel up to make a screen so that she could take her wet suit off and put on her clothes. When this procedure was done the four of us sat on the grass just beyond the beach and watched Talia come in. When she emerged, Talia did not look at Beth or me or Jake. She marched up to her mother, dripping wet, and stared at her for a long moment. She bent down and kissed Marcia on the head, then went to pick up her towel. Marcia wiped her eyes with the back of her hand.
We all rested in the late afternoon, then had dinner that consisted of yesterday’s leftovers. Afterward, Marcia told Jake and me to go off by ourselves and chat. As she did the day before, Talia went off to her room. Beth and Marcia cleaned up in the kitchen. Jake took two bottles of beer from the refrigerator and handed me one. We went out the back door that led from the kitchen and got as far as the steps, where we took a seat.
We took some long, manly pulls from our bottles. After a while we began to reminisce about rabbinical school and our various teachers, and about being rabbis. Jake asked me what I had liked the best about being a rabbi. I said the times when I came up with a good sermon. He said his favorite thing was presiding at bar and bat mitzvahs. He liked seeing a young person take charge. Somehow, I had not expected him to say that.
“So, Michael, do you think we are still rabbis at heart?”
“Sometimes I think that I try so hard not to be one that I still am one.”
“I know what you mean.”
We sat sipping our beers, now slowly. When we were done, we placed the empties on the step. Jake folded his large hands between his knees and stared at the yard.
“We’ve had the talk, Michael. She wrote up a list of all her important documents, her passwords on the Internet, all that stuff. What she wants to leave her daughter. What she wants to leave you. Where her do-not-resuscitate directive is.”
I debated whether to tell Jake that she had also lined me up to do her funeral. I decided that was her job.
“Jake, I’m so sorry.”
“I know. How’s Talia dealing with it do you think?”
“I think she does not know whether she is here to say hello or goodbye.”
There was laughter from inside the house: Marcia and Beth. Maybe they were making cracks about the two of us. It would serve us right.
A bat flitted around overhead, then flitted away. A cool breeze laid its hand on the back of my neck and made me shiver.
We sat silent. I glanced at Jake. The light coming from the house softened his face and made him look younger. Here he was, the once free and easy Jake Teitelbaum, now a frightened man who pottered around in a basement. Suddenly I wanted to put my hand on his shoulder, though I didn’t.
The sun was down now. I could see a star. Very bright, yellow. I realized that it was Venus, the evening star, goddess of love.
I heard the screen door screech open behind us.
“Boys? Coming in for a nightcap with us?” Marcia said, a voice I would know anywhere on earth.
“Sure,” I said.
“Fine,” Jake said. I heard the door screech shut. But still we didn’t move.
David Regenspan is a semi-retired rabbi who has spent most of his adult life in Upstate New York. He has been a past contributor/participant at the Bread Loaf and Colgate writers’ conferences, and has published stories in Amarillo Bay and JewishFiction.net. Aside from writing he enjoys being married to a poet and enjoying a new grandson.