She felt guilty about the dreams. She should have been dreaming about Eddie, her late husband, to whom she’d been married for over forty years. But no. It was Mel – a man who had walked out on her half a century ago.
The dream was always the same. Mel is waiting for her in a train station, but she has gone to the wrong one. She carries her suitcases for blocks to the right station, puts her things down and goes to look for him. And when they return together to where she left her bags, she finds someone has stolen everything out of them.
Esther didn’t like herself in the dream. Why, she wondered, was she traveling alone on a train when she wasn’t even sure where she was going? Dragging her luggage like a mule because she got off too soon. And then leaving her belongings where anyone could take them, as if she didn’t know what’s what, hadn’t lived in New York City her entire life. As if she had no seykhel, no common sense. But that’s how Mel had made her feel. A schlemiel for all eternity.
Celia hadn’t been well for a while. She’d been complaining of having trouble breathing, but she refused to stay home and rest, insisted on schlepping to the community center because she wanted to hear the entertainers, get a free meal, be with people. And, really, Esther thought, could she blame her? What was there left to do in the old neighborhood? A little shopping, watching the television. Calls from Marty, her only child, to talk about the grandchildren. She wanted to visit them, although the thought of the long flight to Los Angeles always stopped her. Every week, Marty urged her to move out there. “Ma, what have you got left in the Bronx?” And she always answered, “What’s so special about someplace else?”
But he was right. Almost everyone she knew was dying. The stores had changed. No more Jade Garden with its flocked red wallpaper, or the Italian cobbler. Sheff’s bakery and Epstein’s deli – gone. It used to be you couldn’t take two steps without running into a friend and have to stop and talk. How Marty had hated that when he was little! He’d tug at her skirt – “C’mon, Ma.” But he was a treasure, she thought happily. She would walk proudly through the streets with her son. And now and then she caught herself thinking – if Mel could see her boy his heart would break, because Marty could have been his.
At least Ceil was left. But really, the woman was like a baby who couldn’t take care of herself.
That day at the center the performer was a heavily rouged, middle-aged woman singer. She was wearing a short blue chiffon number, the kind you would wear to an afternoon wedding. But on a Friday in the cinder-block building with its linoleum floor it was way too fancy; it looked like she was playing dress-up. She was accompanied by a balding man on a keyboard. His shirt had stains on it. Mel would have had something to say about that.
Esther felt it was a waste of club dues to hire third-rate entertainers. She had complained to the other members before, but they had just called her cheap. Mel had accused her of that, too, just because she knew the value of a dollar. Like he ever had a penny to his name, she said to herself. A salesman. Some salesman. If it hadn’t been for the buildings Mama owned we would have starved. That my husband forgot with all his fancy talk.
The woman started her set with Bye Bye Blackbird: “Pack up all my care and woe”
“She’s off-key,” Esther said to Ceil in a loud whisper. Two men sitting in front of them turned around to tell her to shush. They have ears but can’t hear, she thought.
The singer segued into Hello, Dolly, walking around the room, shoving the mic in front of the women’s faces and asking them to say their names.
Well, hello Ruthie. Hello, Selma.
“Now they’ll eat it up,” she said disgustedly to Celia. But Ceil, who was trying to catch the woman’s attention, ignored her.
Esther felt she couldn’t sit there another minute. It was an insult to have to listen to this. She should walk out. Mel would have walked out.
She pictured him in his double-breasted suit with wide lapels and maroon tie patterned with white diamond shapes. His dark hair was neatly combed and he was laughing. Not at the singer. At her. Fifty years had gone by and still she heard him laughing.
Esther became aware of people applauding and stood up. “Come, Ceil, let’s go. The show’s over.”
Celia stayed seated. She looked up at her friend. “All of a sudden I don’t feel so good.”
“Oy mein Gott. I told you not to come!”
“You told me, you told me.”
“Celie, what is it? Your heart?”
“I don’t know.” She was straining to breathe.
“Someone call an ambulance!” Esther screamed.
Celia waved her hand dismissing the idea.
“She can’t take a breath and doesn’t want an ambulance! Don’t be meshuggeh. You already did enough damage staying in a crowded room for an hour just to hear some no-talent kolyikeh.”
The next evening, Esther sat by Celia’s hospital bed, her knitting in her lap.
“What are you making?”
“It’s a sweater for my grandson.”
“Yes. But he’ll probably never even try it on.”
“Why shouldn’t he, it’s lovely. Such a nice color.”
“Why? Because he’s all of eight and already a big shot.” She shook her head. “Just like Mel.”
“Mel? Who’s Mel?”
“What do you mean ’Who’s Mel?’ Mel, my husband.”
Celia raised herself on one arm. “Esther, darling, your husband, may he rest in peace, was Eddie.”
Esther flushed and looked down at her needles. “Gottinyu. What’s wrong with me? Of course. This is for Jesse. Marty’s youngest. Eddie’s grandchild.”
Esther shook her head.
“You can tell me.”
She hesitated a moment. “Oy, Celie, he was my first husband.”
Celia stared at her. “This you never mentioned.”
“What can I say? It lasted six, maybe seven years. What is that compared to a lifetime? But, Ceil, out of nowhere, I can’t stop dreaming about him.”
Celia smiled. “Those must have been some six years.”
Esther moved her chair closer. “Ceil, he was a bastard. He made my life miserable.”
“Yes. Why he married me I never understood.”
“Why does anyone get married. He loved you, no?”
“Love! What did that one know about love? Always thinking of himself. Always criticizing me. I wasn’t pretty enough. I should wear this dress, put on some lipstick. I did everything he wanted, and still he had his eye on every woman who walked by.”
Celia nodded. “I know the type. A nogoodnik.”
Esther had tears in her eyes. “Celie, I was crazy about him.”
“Oh, when you’re young …”
Esther recovered herself. “I was a fool. What I put up with from him. He went to collect the rents from Mama’s houses and came back short. I don’t have to tell you what he was collecting from the women there instead of the money.”
“Esther! Sha! He couldn’t!”
“It’s the truth. About heartache you don’t need to make up stories.”
Celia clucked her tongue and lay back in bed.
“I’m tiring you with my megilleh,” Esther said softly.
“No, no. This is better than television. Tell me what happened.”
“He’d say he was working late, selling. But I knew when the store closed. He was out with some kurveh. Then, one time, I had gone to visit my sister in Montreal …”
“What does it matter which sister? Ada, if you must know.”
“The older one?”
“Just wanted to be sure.”
“Anyway, I went for a few days. When I came back, there was a new fry pan in the kitchen.”
“What are you talking about, a fry pan?”
“You don’t get it? When does a man buy a fry pan? He had a woman over. To my house! She cooked in my kitchen! And my fry pan wasn’t good enough for her. She had to bring her own.”
“Vey iz meir.”
“Now you know. I screamed and cursed until I couldn’t see straight and he left.”
“Such a thing.” Ceil thought a moment. “If you don’t mind my asking, Esther. your Mama, what did she say?”
Esther turned her attention back to her knitting. “I didn’t tell her,” she said, not looking at her friend.
“How could you not tell her?”
“So I lied a little. I said he had gone down to his cousin in Texas to look into a business. The cousin was always hocking him to come anyway. For all I know, the man did go to Texas.”
“Just like that he disappeared? And you didn’t know where?”
“Til this day not a clue.” She began to count stitches.
Celia thought for a moment. “But, darling, what about the divorce?”
Esther answered, her eyes on the wool, “I got a paper in the mail.”
Celia considered this. “So everything was managed and you kept it secret?”
“Well, I told my sisters. Eventually. But they knew not to tell Mama. The neighbors must have suspected, but they saw what he was.”
“But you remarried!”
“My mother, asholem, was gone by then.”
“Well, it turned out good, no? Better you should get rid of that one and meet your Eddie. Someone who treated you nice. Even if he was an Irisher.”
“What does that have to do with it?”
“Nothing. I’m sorry. He was a lovely person.”
“One in a million.”
“Like my Abie,” Celia added, her voice cracking.
“Another one,” Esther agreed.
Celia reached for a tissue. Esther knit a couple of rows.
They heard the food cart being wheeled down the hall. An aide entered the room and deposited a tray on the table by the bed. Celia lifted the aluminum cover.
“What did they give you?”
“Tonight it’s the stuffed shells.”
“Italian food they’re giving you? Italian food is too spicy.”
“Not here. Here they don’t know from spices.”
Esther looked the tray over. “And not even a nice glezele tei.”
“No caffeine. There’s your answer!”
“Who’s talking about caffeine? I’m saying a cup of tea. Besides, they got the kind without. Tomorrow I’m going to bring you a real meal.”
“Sweetheart, you don’t have to bother.”
“It’s no bother. I’ll make a chicken.”
“It’s too much trouble.”
“What trouble? I already bought it.”
Celia smiled. “In that case.”
Esther gathered up her knitting and stood. “So get some rest.”
“What else should I do? And you’ll come tomorrow?”
“Of course,” she answered. “With the chicken. Sleep well.”
Just as Esther reached the door Celia called out, “Esther! About your dreams! Maybe this Mel is trying to send you a message.”
Esther snorted. “Some message. All he does is yell.”
Esther felt relieved she had finally told someone. Why did I keep it a secret all this time, she asked herself. There was nothing to be ashamed of. People got divorced every day. Yet she did feel shame. As if she were the young wife again, humiliated and abandoned.
She rinsed the chicken she had promised Celia, patted it dry and put it in the refrigerator. For her own supper she had cottage cheese and a banana. She could hear her mother’s voice: What kind of meal is that?
Esther went into the living room and measured the back of the sweater she was making for her grandson. She knit a while and then noticed she had dropped a stitch. Annoyed at herself, she undid the rows until she reached the mistake.
That night she had her dream again. She looks out the train window but everything is gray and she can’t read the names of the stations. She grabs her bags and gets off, but then realizes she’s in the wrong place. She lugs everything to the next station. It looks like a toy, as if it is made out of the wooden blocks her Marty used to play with. She puts her things down and goes to look for Mel. When she finds him he shoves a piece of paper in her hand. “Here! For God’s sake! Here is your ticket!” They go back to where she left her belongings but everything is gone. Mel tells her again and again how stupid she is.
The next morning Esther took out the chicken and seasoned it with paprika and a touch of garlic. She was tempted to add salt. It wouldn’t taste good without it. She was a good cook. Not that Mel had done anything but criticize. How many meals had he bothered coming home for? And when he did show up, he would walk around the house in his undershirt showing off his arms until she couldn’t be mad anymore.
No. No salt. If she didn’t look out for Celia, who would? Celia could drive her crazy, but she was a mensch. Someone you could trust.
And yet Esther hadn’t told her everything. She hadn’t told Celia that she had never obtained a get, a Jewish divorce. She was an agunah, with a weight around her heart. But what was she supposed to have done? Gone looking for the bastard and begged his permission? Of course she could have tried through a proxy. Maybe she was stupid not to have done it.
But when Eddie came along it didn’t seem to matter. Esther smiled thinking of the night at the Latin Quarter when Eddie couldn’t keep his eyes off her. How he had come over to her table, wouldn’t leave without her number. She had been pretty, no matter what Mel said. He was a gonif, stealing all her pleasure until she forgot what it was to be happy.
She became Mrs. Moran in a civil ceremony at City Hall. Only one of her sisters had come, and Eddie’s brother and his wife. And some people stopped talking to her just because she had married a shaigetz, a non-Jew. Well, she’d married a Jewish man the first time around and what a prize he’d turned out to be.
When the chicken was ready she wrapped it in three layers of foil and placed it in a plastic shopping bag from the Associated. On the way to the hospital Esther wondered if she should have made more than just the chicken. Maybe a nice raisin and carrot salad. She would do that later, she decided, and bring it the next day.
When she walked into Celia’s room she was alarmed for a moment. The bed was empty. But then she reasoned that Celia had probably been taken somewhere for tests. I should have called first, Esther thought. What if Celie had been sleeping? Then she looked at the bed again. It was very neatly made.
Esther went over to the nurse’s station. “Miss,” she asked one of the women, “Do you know where Mrs. Wasserman is?”
“Celia Wasserman. Room 405.”
“Are you a relative?”
“What does that matter? I’m her friend! Where is she?”
The nurse hesitated. “Ma’am, I’m sorry. Mrs. Wasserman passed away last night.”
Esther stared at her. “What are you talking about? I was here yesterday. We had a conversation!”
“Ma’am, please …”
“I made her chicken,” Esther said, holding out the bag. “I asked her did she want chicken. She said yes. I didn’t add any salt.”
The nurse started to say something but Esther couldn’t hear what it was. She thrust the food at her. “Here. Take this. Please. It shouldn’t go to waste.”
Her dream that night was different. She is on the train wearing her wedding clothes. Not the gray suit from her second marriage, but the gown that had been her mother’s from her first. She is angry with herself. Marrying Mel again? Hadn’t once been enough?
When she gets off, she is in the walk-up apartment she shared with him. Her mother is at the stove in the kitchen, her back turned. She tells Esther that supper is almost ready.
“What are you doing, Mama? It’s not your kitchen.”
“It’s not your dress, so give it back.”
Esther goes into the living room. Mel is there. He looks thirty years old, the age he’d been when they married. As she begins to walk over to him he reaches into his pocket and draws out a white handkerchief and tosses it into the air. It arcs across the light streaming in from the window. She races to catch it. She wants to bring it to her mother, but someone takes it from her and in its place gives her a bouquet, all white – lilies of the valley, roses, gardenias, baby’s breath. She cradles it against her body. And what had been flowers stirs in her arms.