My grandmother set me up with a cute, Jewish girl. We had a lot in common—including our family tree.
For our second date, Rachel got us student-rate tickets to an adaptation of Fences, an August Wilson play being staged at the Penumbra. Again I picked her up, and on the way to the theater I went the wrong way on Route 35W, so we ended up crossing the Mississippi River and then crossing it again. At night the river is dark but quick and loud and—in Minnesota, which must be one of the most geographically distant places in the world from an ocean—is the only reminder of a world bigger than our state.
After some nervous laughter about my poor sense of direction (“Instead of going out, we could just spend the whole night driving.” “Yeah. Ha.”), and then some nervous silence about it, we arrived at the theater just as they began seating the auditorium. Only after the lights dimmed did Rachel put on her glasses—brass-framed, thick-lensed things that were rectangular and not even close to fashionable, which endeared her to me even more. In the play the characters drank and talked about being black and about being broke and wrestling with devils. During intermission Rachel pointed out in the playbill actors she’d worked with. I said I liked the play so far, except I thought one of the performers was overdoing it a little. Rachel said she was a really nice person in real life. In the second act we played the game where our thighs accidentally touched and then remained touching for an hour, the pressure exerted becoming more and more amplified as the play approached its climax.
When I dropped her off, I found out Rachel was an exceptional kisser. I imagined that any actress who’s any good at all must be a good kisser, a necessity for stage survival. We necked in my Jetta’s front seat for maybe three or four minutes, agreed to meet again, and then she went inside, waving her fingers behind her as I flashed on and off my car’s headlights.
But we didn’t meet again—she had been acting. During the next week we exchanged a few missed phone calls, and finally Rachel left a rather lengthy voice-mail explaining that she didn’t think we should go out anymore. I wanted to believe she was simply put off by our being cousins, but as I listened to the message it became apparent that her reasoning was much more common: There was, Rachel thought, no connection between us at all. Despite our shared great-aunt, the shared secular Jewish upbringing, our shared desire simply not to be alone, there weren’t sufficient metaphysical knots or hooks to cinch us together. And what seemed especially odd was that, though of course I felt the shame that attends being turned down by anyone at any time, what I really felt guilty about was disappointing Cogie and Tudie.
While it was, yes, odd that they’d tried to hook Rachel and me up in the first place, it seemed somewhat sadder than usual that we—as two of their descendants—couldn’t mesh. We were failing them doubly. Presumably Rachel had detected unattractive traits specifically within my character, and I wondered if maybe I shouldn’t have poked so much fun at our waitress at the wine bar, or criticized the quality of acting in Fences—though she was polite enough not to mention this on the voice-mail.
As I recounted all this to Cogie on the phone—though insinuating, much to my later regret, that I’d ended the affair—she let out one of her sighs.
“Well,” she said, “we tried.”
In the intervening years, I’ve lived in Brooklyn, Santa Fe, New Orleans, and Boston. About once every theater season, I receive in my mailbox, wherever I am, an envelope from Cogie. In the envelope is a plastic baggie, inevitably containing a picture of Rachel from either the Star Tribune or the Pioneer Press. In the newspaper’s margin, in Cogie’s loopy and increasingly illegible handwriting, are the same three words, and nothing else: “Think about it.”
Sometimes I still do.
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Archie Gottesman got New Yorkers to love a storage company. Can she get Jews to love being Jewish?