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Tablet Original Fiction: Sent on a gruesome errand, a young man comes undone

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“You brought dessert,” Sara said, “who are you?”

We split it, after taking home—to her luxe tenement, downtown—the jackpot in disco trivia.

I’d met Sara in the library stacks earlier that term—we’d both been studying late, but I’d been studying her. We had a lot in common—after graduation, we’d both be taking time not strictly off. She, who’d done English (American), would write poetry. I was pondering going to Kosovo, that next spring, as a research assistant to a professor friend and colleague of my parents (L.O. Shanker, author of Soviet countereconomies as models for future global catallaxy: markets white, black, & gray)—helping out with a survey he was conducting on the financial consequences of preservation v. reconstruction of the damage done by the Yugoslav Wars. I was supposed to file gradschool applications, for the following fall, before I left. Before I filed, I was supposed to decide between repeating history or econ.

As my parents had their own commencements to attend, Sara met them only toward the middle of summer, when they both came out for a conference. They took us to modern dance. We all got along so well that even the coffee or tea, postdance, was mutual.

Once we were seated I told my parents about my Shabbos with Yudy and Rivkah—omitting nothing of the experience, from briquette roast to stewy fruit, except the circumstances of my ouster and the dessert that was served alfresco—but Mom just got fidgety and said that when Yudy had called it was only to inquire about one of my grandmother’s brooches, which was missing. She’d yelled, she said, Dad’d had to pry the phone away from her.

I asked Mom if she’d stolen any jewels, but she was digging her bit cuticles into Dad, either because he’d given out my number or as a prod—to answer for her.

Dad, imperturbable, said, “your grandmother’s jewel is immaterial—Rivkah called to get in touch.”

The subject changed. I told them that regardless of changing subjects, I’d just moved in with Sara. I wouldn’t have time to audit Kosovo—I had a relationship to foster. Mom retreated to the bathroom, returned having already paid the check.

Sara and I lived downtown. I worked as a waiter, worked on my languages with the cooks. I was also contemplating opening, with a Panamanian chef I’d met, an ecohospitality consultancy. Sara wrote. Elegies, rondeaux. Just when my parents went back to school, a bent postcard arrived—“The Clock Tower, National Landmark, Pristina, Kosovo”—Shanker assuring me that it wasn’t too late (technically, it was). It’d been crushed in the mailbox between cumbersome folders, PhD. applications (none of which I’d requested).

One binder, though, was for Sara.

She’d won a poetry prize. A prize so significant that instead of cash, it offered a two week residency in Paris.

Sara was adamant about going alone, having time to devote to her manuscript. But a one month fellowship in Munich followed, which led to an ambiguous stipendium, Xmas in Berlin.

Meanwhile I served amuse gueules on Wall Street, slacked around the apartment. When I had off, I hardly left. But then the New Year came and went, without the subsidy from Great Neck. Her parents’ half of the rent—it was late, not yet received, not yet sent.

I emailed Sara my regular update and only at the close of it, after the requisite attempt to solicit jerkoff pics or even vids, asked about the money. She answered that she’d met a, or the, vicedirector of EU public relations. In Berlin. Though he came from Rome. He was Roman. She was writing, she wrote, from Trastevere, Piazza Santa Maria—the text linked to its location on a map. The email concluded with another link, to a blogpost about a reading she’d done—“un promettente poetessa ebrea”—no mention of the missing check.

I got depressed, stopped showing up for work, got fired, got roommates, got into fights with roommates and kicked them out, got into fights with my landlord over a postmark, the fee he charged for my bouncing a check, was kicked out myself and moved to Brooklyn.

To a single room spinning dizzily atop a sixfloor walkup, rented from the Jeffs—a home improvements cooperative couple, two gay guys too into experimenting with mallets.

Sara never responded to the letters I wrote, actual letters on actual paper she’d recognize from her notebooks left behind, pretentiously deckled, speckled with palm frond and nibs of reeds. I made sure to write on the envelopes—remnants of her bat mitzvah stationery—my new addy in scarring slashes. I’d taken all her clothes with me too, stuff she didn’t wear anymore, a totally serviceable hoody coat she considered too puffy for her curves, her ritzy Hebrew school varsity tracksuit. A box of incense sticks, our sex candle.

It was the end of winter. A thick quilt of snow bundled the asphalt. I’d just started tending the least fashionable bar in the neighborhood, O’Nan’s. Clean the taps, change the kegs, sprinkle sawdust so no one falls. Serve through to last call, which I called, alone, to the jukebox. It’d been a major blizzard. A whitewash. A tumult of whites. Drifts packed hard, inseparable, sooted. I hadn’t served a drink since midnight. The rest of the city had already been cleared, was thawing into motion. The gentrifiers still hadn’t been freed.

Just as I was about to shutter the morning, face the choice of weathering either the Jeffs—who’d just have woken to have sex or assemble shelving—or every assistant manager of every café who wouldn’t let me sleep between reloads of cocktail tutorials on my laptop, my pillow—the doors swung, a jacket unbuttoning. Black stumbled from blackness. He hitched his pants, drained cuffs.

It was always tough to tell who was a regular, who wasn’t. Not least because of the costumes, the disguises. The later the shift, the more likely they were to be there, and the more of them there were—a tribe camped out back atop the barrels, in any climate, but not to smoke, just not to be conspicuous. They always came in twos and nursed one drink between them—especially tequila, the only times I ever served tequila—and even if the patio was closed, and in this inclemency it was certainly closed, I wasn’t going to tell them.

But he was on his own—already drunk, curlstrangled, tails out and pleats agape. He was harried, not as drenched as I’d initially thought but sweating, drenched and sweating.

He asked, “do you mind I charge my phone?”

“It’s an honor,” I said, “my outlets are all yours,” and he cramped his bottom lip, toggled glasses, wasn’t recognizing anything.

His phone was older than I was, his pockets bulged with chargers. Some exotically plugged, some foreignly adapted, wires gunky, knotted, flayed.

He finally found one that fit, turned on the phone, leaned against the bar to study—wavering—his battery’s refreshment. I poured him a water. He ignored the water. I thought he might pass out.

I asked, “so how are Yudy and Rivkah?”

He flinched, froze, and stayed frozen even through his phone blustering with voicemail. The reclaimed jugs shook from their hooks above the benches. A plow roared by outside.

“Basha’s boy?”

“That’s not my mother’s name.”

The plow had passed, the msg squall had passed and all was still again.

He just took his phone and turned, checked what he had at the maximum distance of the charge, as if straining at a leash.

I folded with the rags.

But then suddenly Sruly turned again and snuck a breath, “so what plans you have tomorrow?”


“Tomorrow”—six months ago now—Sruly wanted to come pick me up but since I didn’t want him to know where I lived, knowing how close we had to live, with only a freshly planted organic grocery or a block of warehouses/factories turned installationist studios/DJ rehearsal halls between us, I suggested Atlantic Avenue and he agreed—but only to its terminus, the permafrost gird, the onramps.

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Tablet Original Fiction: Sent on a gruesome errand, a young man comes undone