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Kissing Cousins

My grandmother set me up with a cute, Jewish girl. We had a lot in common—including our family tree.

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((Photoillustration Ivy Tashlik; original photos Shutterstock)

It was springtime in Minneapolis four years ago when my grandmother Cogie called with an important message: “There’s a girl,” she said.

Cogie’s worldview derived from Noah’s ark, in that she believed people were unequivocally happier in pairs. She’d been worried about me because I’d recently broken up with my girlfriend of seven years and had since been moping around with a collection of Camus’ essays in hand, expounding on the problem of existence.

“She’s blonde,” Cogie said. “She’s Jewish. She’s 21. She’s very cute. She’s very cute. She’s an actress and has been in plays at the Guthrie, I think. She’s an artist, Max.” I, too, was an artist, in that I waited tables to make rent and occasionally wrote album reviews for websites that no longer exist. “I thought maybe you two might be a good match for each other.”

The girl’s name was Rachel. Then Cogie told me her last name, and I recognized it immediately. Twenty years earlier, I’d gone to kindergarten with Rachel’s older brother, and we’d become friends because his great-aunt was also my great-aunt—an exciting revelation for two 6-year-olds. But that meant that Rachel, like her brother, was my second cousin.

“Just take her number,” Cogie said, “and think about it.”

***

In the next 24 hours I received three voice-mails. Two were from Cogie, asking if I’d called Rachel yet. The third was from Tudie, the great-aunt Rachel and I had in common.

I hadn’t spoken to Tudie since her husband—my grandfather’s brother—had passed away the previous winter. During the following year Cogie lunched with her often, attempting not to replace my great-uncle but to help Tudie at least be part of a pair. Like Cogie, Tudie was sub-petite and dressed almost exclusively in shades that fell between cream and beige. Both were in their late seventies, but at family events, as they spoke about grandchildren and mutual memories, they could, at times, seem to be exchanging dark, valuable gossip the way teenagers do.

“I just want you to know,” Tudie said when I called her back, “that you are not related to Rachel.” She explained that my father’s uncle had married Rachel’s mother’s aunt (that is, Tudie herself), so the only link between Rachel and me was through marriage. “There’s no blood connection,” Tudie went on. “I’ve talked with her twice and she’s very amenable to a phone call. And she’s just so cute.”

I didn’t like that my love life was being commandeered by women called Cogie and Tudie, neither of whom cleared five feet in socks. But I was hoping to find someone companionable, and Rachel was purportedly amenable and cute, and I began to consider whether I could disregard that she was my cousin, albeit by marriage. For months I wavered, deeming the situation a little too bizarre, but my kinfolk—admirably—did not lose hope.

At Rosh Hashanah dinner that year, Cogie pulled me into an empty bedroom and shut the door. “I have something for you,” she said.

From her purse she pulled out a Ziploc baggie, inside of which was an index card. On it she’d copied a family tree. I was placed in the center of the card (which she didn’t remove from the baggie), and with her fingernail Cogie traced my lineage up through my father and grandfather, then over toward Tudie, and finally down to Rachel, whose name was all the way over on the card’s left margin, the R partially cut off.

“You see,” Cogie said. “There’s really no connection at all.”

“But we’re on the same tree!” I said.

“I think you’d be passing up something that could be special.”

Then she produced a second Ziploc from her purse. This one contained a clipping from the front page of the Star Tribune’s “Entertainment” section. A large picture of a blonde-haired, sad-faced young actress—Rachel—dressed as some brooding Chekhovian peasant pressed against the plastic.

“You see?” Cogie said.

“I see,” I said, suddenly willing to disregard my earlier hesitance.

***

I picked Rachel up at her apartment in Minneapolis’ warehouse district, on the west bank of the Mississippi River. With her long blonde hair and slender build, she looked nothing like anyone I was related to. I moved my server apron and wine opener from the passenger seat to the back seat floor. The car filled quickly with Rachel’s scent—something like dusty roses. “This is kind of weird, right?” she said, and that instantly endeared her to me.

The wine bar we were going to was only a few blocks away, and Rachel suggested that we park in her building’s guest garage. After five minutes searching for a spot, we determined that the lot was full and decided just to drive to the bar. The parking there was even worse—there were lines for meters two cars deep—and we circled the block a few times. “Instead of going out, we could just spend the whole night parking,” I said. Rachel did not, as I remember, laugh at my very good joke.

At the bar she told me about the acting program she was in at the University of Minnesota and about her work as a volunteer digging wells in Africa. She lacked the forced exuberance of most performers I knew, and I was thankful. She was a touch wholesome; she said she’d never smoked a cigarette, which put me off for some reason I have yet to define. I made fun of our waitress for having opened our bottle of wine incorrectly—this was to convey to Rachel that I wasn’t attracted to our waitress and also because, like many of my coworkers, I’d developed an arrogance about proper table service. I didn’t tell Rachel that, just weeks before, I’d been turned down for a job at that very bar.

Throughout the conversation the words cubism, post-modern, and integrity all came up—served from both my side and hers, we volleyed back and forth. We did our best to acknowledge and diminish our possible familial connection, as if shrugging off a foul ball. I asked about her brother whom I’d gone to kindergarten with, she asked about Cogie, and we sipped nervously at our wine. Earlier in the year, Rachel had broken up with her boyfriend, whom she’d lived with, and this was her first date since then, too. We finished a bottle of chardonnay, and I walked her home. Outside her door we hugged and exchanged kisses on the cheek.

I thought how Rachel seemed like a girl for whom I could see myself washing dishes un-complainingly, and this and other domestic fantasies entered my imagination with progressive speed over the next few days. At some point I looked up cousin on Wikipedia and determined we were only slightly more closely connected than Eleanor and Franklin Roosevelt—they were fifth cousins (by blood) who had, of course, married.

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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You’re overreacting to the word “cousin” because you equate it to the word “incest”. Marriage between first cousins was very common throughout Jewish history, I have many in my own family tree. But the topic of this article is really the “ick factor” of incest, which is your own personal anxiety. That anxiety is a typical American hangup your grandmother didn’t share. You also vaguely insinuated that sex between 5th cousins (Roosevelts’) is some degree of incest, when in fact the amount of DNA shared between 5th cousins is so miniscule so as to be insignificant. But I get it, this article isn’t about science. Its about your moral block against sex with your 2nd cousin. I don’t mean to criticize your feelings about your 2nd cousin, maybe you just weren’t compatible. What I object to is your personal crusade to vilify marriage between cousins.

Elena Brunn says:

I like this article, but wish it had a sweeter ending. My mother’s
parents were first cousins who met as teenagers. One looked East Indian;
the other; northern European. My second cousin’s grandparent’s were
also first cousins. There, one looked Slavic and the other; Eurasian. The progeny were, or are, healthy and very bright. How can anything be more essentially Jewish than these comments?

Franklin and Elanor were fifth cousins once removed. Basically, all they shared was the last name. And pretty much every Askenazi Jew is distant cousins with every other.

Honestly, the whole article seems to be more about the awkwardness of having a great aunt trying to set you up and continuously pushing the point when it obviously isn’t working.

9Athena says:

Cripes! The connecting thread is the cousin gig. But the real story is that he was rejected. By a relative (in some form or another). He liked her and the girl dumped him. The family thing was to flesh out the story and make it more interesting. As for first cousins marrying-not a good idea. Outlawed in most states. Each person may have anecdotal tales of gifted and beautiful offspring. But no cigar. Statistically (by the big numbers) most unfortunate. For the record; marrying first cousins was au courant among all groups not just the Jews. Kept the family and fortune intact. Strangers are disruptive.

Oh for heaven’s sake, a SECOND cousin freaks you out? Shared great-grandparents? You might think twice about a first cousin, although it wouldn’t be the end of the world if that worked out either, but second cousin marriages are as common as dirt. It’s really nothing in itself.

Very, very enjoyable, and very nicely written! (But was it true??)

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Kissing Cousins

My grandmother set me up with a cute, Jewish girl. We had a lot in common—including our family tree.

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