Nathan Featured on Sasson Magazine!
EXCITING NEWS! Sasson Magazine, an online literary magazine dedicated to providing a vibrant voice for Jewish writers, is currently serializing Outdated: a Novel! You can also see some of Nathan's poetry, short stories, and more! Below is his latest short story, "That Story with the Good Ending." Check out more at sassonmag.com!
That Story with the Good Ending
Fridays are short days at the office, and on a particular one at ten minutes after two I log off my computer, gather my things, and leave to go home. Having run out of the house that morning without preparing an adequate lunch, I turn south out of the building onto Seventh Avenue towards the pizza place on Broadway for relatively inexpensive sustenance en route to the LIRR. I am halfway down the block when my eye catches another Jew approaching the crosswalk at Thirty-Ninth Street. Though I have no doubt that there are other Jews on the street at this time ¾ this being New York and all ¾ she is obviously dressed so: orange cardigan, gray pleated ankle skirt, matching gray stockings, and silver ballet slippers. She has a tiny black bag nestled under her right armpit and carries a Gap shopping bag in her left hand. More then that I don’t gather; I turn my gaze away from her and preoccupy myself instead with wondering if I have enough time to get to Macy’s and then to a train without cutting it too close to Shabbat.
Surely enough, as I approach my lunch spot, I notice the Jewish-looking girl slowing down in front of the restaurant. Seeing as how there really is nowhere else kosher around here for us to eat out at this late hour, I’m not surprised by her destination. A disheveled old man is requesting tzedakah from the patrons whom he opens the door for, and this girl slows down right in front of the opening and starts searching through her purse. Either because I’m moved by her giving attitude or am embarrassed not to reciprocate, I also fish around my coat pocket for a spare dollar. Right when I reach out my hand to give him my donation and step inside, the girl finally finds her contribution and also hands him a dollar. Our combined generosity moves him, so much that he lets go of the door and claps excitedly. “I thank you both,” he announces with a bow, adding to the awkwardness of the moment. I nod my head and smile while opening the door, which the mystery girl uses as her cue to enter without recognizing my kindness, which doesn’t really bother me.
The place is basically empty save for a few tables in the front that are occupied by other Friday workers not wanting to come to the Friday night meal starving, and a table of random tourists. The chairs in the back are turned over onto the tables, indicating to us late-lunchers that we better eat fast and get out! I spot my desired Sicilian slice from behind the glass, but before I can order it, she points at it and the guy behind the counter slides it into the oven. I wait with a sullen face until she moves to the cashier before asking if there is perhaps a square pie to arrive some time in the near future. “We’re closing,” he says matter-of-factly, and I stand there with no retort. I settle for a regular slice. He cuts one from the pie and drops it onto a paper plate.
“Can I get it heated?” I ask him.
“It’s already hot,” he states decisively as he hands it to me on a tray.
But you’re heating up her slice! I don’t whine, but instead nod and morosely take it over to the cashier. She is walking back to get her tray with a Peach Snapple in hand, the exact flavor I had intended to purchase. As she takes my Sicilian slice and my Snapple to her seat, I move over to the cashier and slam a ten-dollar bill onto the counter. “You got anything smaller?” he asks. “She took my last five.” I respond in the negative, and walk away with a wad of ones and my warm, regular slice, a Lemonade Snapple and perfunctory straw, and find only a small table in the corner available. Since facing the wall would certainly appear strange, after I return from washing I sit facing the rest of the diners and her table, occasionally glancing at the back of her head.
With nothing else to do but fight my wandering mind from thinking about this girl, I eat quickly. There was nothing particularly intriguing about this encounter with her as of yet; two people can have the same tastes and the same amount of money and it won’t mean anything. Still, nobody likes being scrutinized behind her back. Nevertheless, I sit there determined to eat as quickly as possible, guessing from her outfit where she lives, wondering where she’s going for Shabbat with no duffel bag or rolling suitcase in tote, and what she is doing in the city this late on a Friday. Her age is indistinguishable by just looking at her; I surmise that she is old enough to come into the city like this regularly but might be too young for it to be routine. I finish my slice, bentch and dash for the door while she is taking out a pocket siddur from her purse.
I end up at the Gap; as I walked down Broadway a tinge of worry made me reconsider the hassle of navigating Macy’s at such a late hour. With no time to try anything on, I quickly find four colors I can live with and hurry to the counter. I almost do a double take when I find my new shadow only two people ahead of me on line with the contents of the Gap bag she’d had been carrying and a receipt already in her hand. In her other hand is her unfinished Snapple, which she is drinking through a straw. Until that point I might have thought all these occurrences as a bunch of coincidences, but the fact that I am somewhat of a stickler about drinking Snapple with a straw makes all these similarities hard to just write off as just coincidences. I actually let out a small laugh, barely a “ha ha,” to which she turns and reacts similarly. I want to shrug, gesture, or say something, but it doesn’t feel right; she seems like someone who doesn’t want to make anything of our encounter, so I leave her to her oblivion. I’m not so close-minded; perhaps the whole reason I had ended up at Gap was because she’d persuaded me with the walking advertisement in her right hand. Apparently I’m correct about her caring less than I do, as she’s already turned her attention back to the cashiers. I suddenly become very interested in my upcoming purchase. Do I really need these shirts? I ask myself. What does she think of me that I’m buying these? Why do I care?
“Excuse me,” I suddenly hear coming from an impatient clerk, who effectively wakes me from my musings. “You can step forward.”
I bring my shirts to the counter and look to my right, where Little Ms. Jewish Girl is sorting out her return with a different cashier. When I detect the slightest turn of her head in my direction, I quickly turn away, hoping that this will be quick.
“Do you want to apply for a Gap Card today and save 15% on your purchase?” the clerk asks as she scans the barcodes of the soon-to-be-mine T-shirts.
“What, three dollars?” I ask incredulously.
“The 15% is for all purchases you make today from any Gap affiliated stores, even Gap.com.”
“Uh, no,” I simply reply, opting out of explaining what being Shomer Shabbat really entails. She shows no expression as she throws my shirts into a nylon bag, and after we exchange money for a receipt I thank her and bid her good day. As I turn I catch the girl being handed her final receipt and I pick up my pace to get out of there before any more coincidences can occur. I bolt down 34th Street, maneuvering through the pedestrian traffic at top speed, trying to remember which minute of the hour the last Far Rockaway off-peak is scheduled to depart.
Kippas are still sporting the heads of other commuters gathered at the spot — under the big sign by the ticket counters where the track numbers were listed — but I have only five minutes before my train is to leave. I jump into the last car on the track and start walking through the aisles to find an open seat. Three cars in and the only seat worth taking is by a window at the end of the car with the two seats directly facing it. I collapse into it, relishing the leg room, but ten seconds later a Russian-looking woman sits directly across from me and places all her shopping bags right in front of my calves. Then an older Hispanic gentleman in a business suit drops next to me and emits a long sigh, whispering what sounds like a Spanish prayer. I grimace and wonder why he has to sit next to me, even lifting my head to look around the car to see if the car was full—it is—and when I turn back I hear a gasping plop into the seat next to the Russian woman. Sure enough, it’s her, breathless from running for the train, which jerks forward and starts to leave the station.
The car is silent save for the beating of my heart, which I’m certain everyone can hear. All right, you’ve got my attention, Hashem, I think while suppressing a smile. This many coincidences are just too much to ignore: the dollar, the Sicilian pizza, the Snapple, the straw, the Gap, the same train, the same car, the same seat! Does this mean anything? It can’t mean nothing! But what are we supposed to do about it? Start talking? Maybe she didn’t notice any of what just happened and I’ll go and make the next fifteen minutes that we’re stuck in these seats extremely awkward. But then maybe we were really supposed to meet on this train and have fifteen uninterrupted minutes of conversation—or longer if she doesn’t switch at Jamaica—and all that’s happened up until now was supposed to give me enough reason to break the ice when we would have otherwise remained silent. Before I can assess more options, I begin to sense the silence of the train car becoming more acute when I realize that she’s looking in my direction. Without a doubt, I just know that she’s thinking exactly what I’m thinking: who’s is going to initiate?
Knowing that I’ll never forgive myself for defecting, I clench my teeth, breathe shortly, and open my mouth slowly without a clue as to what I’m going to say. Before I emit any sound, she blurts out, “same train even?”
“Yeah, I know,” I reply, my tension melting. “I was wondering when you’d show up.”
She laughs, which draws the attention of our seatmates. “Did I take your favorite slice?”
I nod, joining in her laughter. I notice that the people in the seats across are glancing in our direction also. “And my Snapple flavor.”
“There was more than one bottle of Peach!” she cries. By now we’re giggling so much that we’re drawing a lot of attention.
I wipe away a tear and try to calm down. Quietly, I say, “I just couldn’t after you took the Sicilian.”
“Understandable,” she admits. “I’m surprised we haven’t met before.”
“We probably have,” I shrug. “Where do you live?”
“Me too!” I exclaim. “West Broadway?”
“Yes!” she cries, clapping in excitement. “I’m at the corner of Franklin.”
“Oh,” I frown. “I’m way down by Edward Avenue.”
“OK,” she concedes. “We’re within a ten-minute walk.”
“Fifteen minutes,” I correct her, and then wonder why. “Anyway, what’s your name? It isn’t Adina, is it?”
Her mouth drops. My eyes widen. “No way,” is all I can say.
She exclaims a jubilant cry, startling the Russian-looking woman next to her. “We even have the same name!” she tries explaining, but the woman just looks nervously at the both of us.
“It’s a whole story,” I reassure her through my smile.
A classic from the archives
So I got to the train station at Broadway and 116th and I was starving. The time was three-fifteen and so far all I had eaten that day was a scant bowl of Honey Nut Cheerios and an apple leeched off an acquaintance whose mother still hands him a folded-over brown paper bag before he can leave his front door. I had forgotten to take a lunch when I dashed out in the morning, and as I stood prepared to endure an hour-or-so train ride to Brooklyn, I could think of nothing besides how I needed to quell my intense gastronomical struggle. As I descended to the downtown platform, right at the landing was a newsstand—as they are nicely called—hocking its wares to the subway travelers. Being the only salesman in this particular market, its lone attendant gets away with offering melted chocolate to the public at retail prices, probably paying off the mortgage on his Manhasset split-level with his profiteering. I, though, could not resist the yearning my body had for nourishment and I approached his pile of newspapers, indicating that I am interested in purchasing one of his impulse items.
Of his overwhelming selection of nearly thirty different chocolate-based candy bars, I narrowed my sights on a Twix—for two reasons. One, Twix has two twin parallel cookie bars in one neat little package, which I believed would prove more nourishing than, say, a fat stick of nougat like a Three Musketeers. Secondly, the traditionally gold wrapper announced a contest of sorts, the lucky winner being able to turn his snack fix into a sizable profit of a million dollars. With fantasies of buying multiple candy vending machines with the prize money, I bought the soft candy bar, hoping to make it home without gnawing at my shirt. I handed the man a dollar, one of two residing in my wallet at the time, and was returned a nickel, a dime, a quarter and a grimace. I paid no particular attention to the man’s apparent feelings towards my purchase, neither did I pay attention to the amount of change I received, for all I cared about was that I now had a Twix and that I now could eat something.
Then the train came and I got on and sat down to eat my Twix. As I tore open the thin film barrier between me and food, the doors closed and the train began to travel. Once the milk-chocolate-covered cookie reached the air it met my mouth like a long-lost lover and without hesitation I ate the entire thing, forgetting all rules of society and succumbing to even licking—actually biting—off the chocolate stuck to the wrapper. For the few brief seconds it took me to attack my late lunch I completely forgot that there was anybody else in the car with me, and when I shifted my eyes back and forth like a cartoon villain, I remembered that this was New York and nobody looks at anybody else doing anything on the subway, ever, and thus I continued to devour the Twix with gusto.
Eventually, as with all good things, it ended. I squeezed the last bite from its warm home between my fingers and swallowed, leaving my digestion system to do its work unabated. As I took that triumphant exhale that signified the end of my indulgence, I came to a terrible realization.
It hadn’t worked.
My plan for stomach appeasement had been fruitless. I now had chocolate and caramel stuck to my teeth, crumbs on my lips, a wrapper in my hand, and the same hunger I had tried to silence laughing at me like a cartoon villain. What did I do wrong? I pondered. I quickly shuffled through the options that had been available at the newsstand to recall whether I had made the right decision with the Twix, but no other bar came up as a potential better candidate. Perhaps I should have bought two Twix, but then I would have had to break the other dollar, and gotten more change…
My thoughts shifted then, and all I wanted to do now was dispose of the wrapper I had no use for anymore. It was a token of a decision I wanted to forget, a memory of a bad experience I didn’t want to have to tell over to anybody, ever. I looked around at the other passengers. Though nobody was really looking at anybody else, I knew that I couldn’t simply drop the wrapper under the seat without being caught. I wasn’t that desperate.
Then the train stopped at 103rd and I thought to quickly get up and to be rid of the evidence of my snacking and return to the train. I even turned my head (I was facing away from the platform) as the train entered the station to see if our car would disembark its passengers adjacent to a trash receptacle, but today was not my day. I whimpered a little, but then a glimmer of hope arose in my heart. The next stop was 96th, and I could potentially switch to the express, bringing me home quicker AND allowing me to throw out the wrapper all at once! Those forty seconds between the two stations allowed me to stave off the taunts of my conscience, because now I had a plan.
We approached 96th with pepper, and I jumped to my feet, ready to shoot for the moon. Plenty of people stick their heads out at these junctions of local and express, hoping they’ll decide in the eight seconds while the doors are open on the local whether to wait or not. I was so anxious to get off the train and get rid of the wrapper I started dancing by the doors like a dog that needs to be let out. With a jerk and a sigh the train stopped and the doors slid open and I ran. I ran towards the garbage, slamming the last remaining trails of chocolate on that foil wrapper into the can like a basketball player making the last dunk of the conference final, beckoning the endorsement deals to come. I went towards the express track and saw no pair of headlights down the tunnel, and tried to maneuver back to the local. For some reason an entire cast of extras decided to show up in that split-second as I bulleted to the express side, effectively blocking my way. I was a mere few feet too short of inserting my arm into the closing doors and souring the conductors’ mood having to reopen for me. I relinquished my right as a subway passenger to do this and settled to my surroundings on the hot platform, watching my former lunchroom slowly pick up speed as it disappeared from my life, leaving me to wait for the express.
However many minutes later, I was still standing in the heat of the 96st station, staring down selfish seat-hoggers who couldn’t give a hungry guy a break. As I leaned next to that garbage can on the hot, dirty platform, I remembered the air-conditioned seat I gave up and wondered what would have been had I simply just ate the wrapper. The experience would have been more interesting than my boring wait. The crumbs and the chocolate now on my face and the three coins now jingling in my pocket were bothering me. I could have even put the wrapper in my pocket and washed the pants later. I lost all faith in a simple candy bar relinquishing something as powerful as hunger.
Only when I got on the express several minutes later did I realize that I hadn’t even checked if I had won the million dollars.