It started out innocently. A message on Twitter. A meeting in Central Park. Lunch at a kosher restaurant on 38th Street. I had never expected to see my brother, Avram, again. When he left the Yeshiva and moved to California, he was considered dead, and my older brother, Shimon, prohibited me from having any contact. Now Avram was married and back in town, living in Long Island with his wife and two children.
The first time I saw him in ten years was on a bench near the Great Lawn. He had suggested it as common meeting area, away from our different worlds. I was shocked to see my older brother without his scholarly beard, wearing a shirt that read “LA Dodgers.” It was as if I had never met him. He said that after many years of “hating religion,” as he put it, he was now attending a reform synagogue in Forest Hills. He wanted to reconnect with his family.
“You might as well go to a Catholic Church,” I said. “The reform Jews know nothing. They serve bagels and pork on Shabbat.”
“Well, it’s not that bad. No pork. But they do serve lobster at kid’s bar mitzvahs.”
I frowned, and Avram poked me, saying that he was joking. Avram always had a strange sense of humor.
“And you, Nahum,” he wondered. “Why are you not married yet?”
That was a touchy subject. The whole Rifka incident and the sad ending to their courtship.
“God will bring the One to me.” I said.
“God does nothing, unless you make it so.”
Avram was trying to egg me on, but he wasn’t saying anything so controversial that the Rabbis hadn’t questioned themselves.
“Baruch Hashem,” I said..
Avram suggested that I spent this Shabbat in Long Island, so I could meet his wife and kids, but I told him it was impossible.
“I’ll meet you anyway on Friday.” he said. “Outside the Yeshiva. In case you change your mind.”
I said that I wouldn’t.
During the week, my heart softened. The Torah reading that week spoke of family, of Abraham, Sarah, and Isaac. Was not Avram, despite his wrong path, still my brother?
On Friday afternoon, I approached the Yeshiva, and saw Avram waiting for me. He was smiling, confident of my choice to join him for the weekend. A few feet away, with his arms crossed, was my older brother, Shimon, silent and as stiff as Lot’s wife, waiting to argue against it.
We talked about goals today in therapy.
“But how do you know which is the right path to take to reach your goals?” I asked my therapist towards the end of the session.
The therapist looked at his watch, indicating that time was up.
I took a long walk to 34th and 6th to take the E train back to Queens.
The E train was jammed with every Human of New York as we screeched from the station. It was not rush hour. Something was wrong for it to be so crowded.
The conductor spoke over the loudspeakers.
“Because of construction,” he said, “The “E” train will only make stops on the [unintelligible] line. Again, the “E” train will only make stops on the [unintelligible] train.”
“Did he say the “M” train or the “N” train?” asked the woman standing next to me, a middle-aged Pakistani lugging three shopping bags from TJ Maxx.
“”M” train” I said. “I think.”
“No, he said the “N” train.”” said a dude with an NYU yarmulke.
The confusion quickly spread through the entire train, like a wild fire in California, or viral video on Facebook.
“Let me say this again,” spoke the conductor. “Because of construction, the “E” train will only make stops on the [unclear if its “M” or “N”] train. As in the word….”
He either said “Mikey” or “Nike.”
“Mikey?” asked an off-duty security guard reading the Daily News. “So it’s the “M” train?”
“I thought he said “Nike,” retorted a mother with a baby stroller. “So the “N” train.”
Like a boomerang tossed into the wind, our cries whipped back to the conductor.
“Because of construction…” he said for the third time, “… the “E” train will only make stops on the [unclear if its “M” or “N”] train. As in… MICHAEL JORDAN.”
“Michael Jordan,” I said. “I knew I heard “M.”
“But maybe he means Michael Jordan, as in the Air Jordans made by NIKE, so “N”!” said the security guard, proving Voltaire’s famous maxim that “Doubt is not a pleasant condition, but certainty is absurd.”
The Pakistani woman was becoming frantic, swinging her shopping bags like a pendulum. She walked over to the side door where the conductor was sitting inside. None of us had realized that we were in the first car, in close proximity to the oracle himself. His door was adorned with a poster advertising a sleazy dentist who took all medical plans.
The woman knocked several times, asking, “What stops are we making on this train — “M” or “N?”
The conductor opened the door, revealing his unshaven pale face. There was gasps from the crowd, because his appearance was like seeing the Phantom coming on stage at the Paris Opera.
“We’re making the stops as the “M” train,” he said, as clearly as possible. “The “M” train. “M” as in AUNTIE M.”
The weary travelers sighed in relief. We were making the stops as the “M” train. It was as solid a truth as the existence of gravity.
Except that if he was making a reference to the Wizard of Oz, most people should know that Dorothy’s aunt was named Emily, so her name would be Auntie Em, not Auntie “M,” which would be an “E,” the letter of the train we thought when we first entered the “E” train. But rather than causing any more confusion, I kept this information to myself.
We all have goals in life. But sometimes we need to let life take us to our destination without question.
The statues stood silent, dusty and broken in a lonely storage room.
“I told you this was the wrong place,” she said. “Robert’s gallery is on the fourth floor.”
I never liked Robert Altbrook, her pretentious artist friend, the type of guy who talked about books he never read. But Andrea didn’t want to be late for his opening, so we got here early, but apparently on the wrong floor.
She had planned on this outing for a week, buying a new dress at Bloomingdale’s and making sure the kids were staying with friends. I even cancelled my tennis game.
“After Robert’s show. After Robert’s show.” That was my mantra to Lydia, as I kissed her breasts in her bed on Tuesday afternoon. “I don’t want to ruin Robert’s show for my wife. I think she is love with him.”
Lydia managed the PR department of the firm. She was ten years older than I was, but younger at heart, and what had started out as a weekly Tuesday afternoon lunchtime fuck had turned into love. Lydia was pressing me to ask Andrea for a divorce, and I was using Robert’s show as the deadline.
“And why would Andrea care?” I thought to myself. We haven’t had sex in six years. We had wasted fifteen years that went nowhere. I was even convinced that Andrea was having an affair with Robert, but I never brought it up, feeling nausea at the idea.
“I want a divorce,” I will say to her, and we will both be free to follow our hearts.
But I knew that I would not ask her for a divorce. Not before Robert’s show. Not after Robert’s show. I would not have the courage. This was my life, and there was no turning back.
“Can we go?” asked Andrea, looking over at the dead stone figures.
“These statues scare me,” she said. “Imagine if they became alive.”
I felt the statues looking right back at us.
“These humans scare me,” they said. “Imagine if they became alive.”
It’s common knowledge in the Bronx that you don’t remain friends with your ex, but Xavier ached to prove the others wrong. His ideas always ran contrary to common wisdom. During his childhood, he prided himself on doing the opposite –he smoked pot to diss his parents, but went to St. Nick’s for Sunday Mass, just to annoy his friends.
“How’s your new guy?” Xavier asked Pammie.
They were sitting across from each other for their weekly early morning Wednesday breakfast at the Pop and Son Diner, where they always split the Pancake and Bacon Special.
“He’s good,” she answered.
“You sleeping with him?”
“You really want me to answer that?”
“Sure. We’re friends now. Platonic friends. Like Chandler and Ross’s sister, what’s her name.”
“Yeah, I’m sleeping with him?”
They both sipped from their now lukewarm coffee.
“Is this getting serious?” he asked. “You’ve been seeing him for a couple of months now, right?”
“Nah. He’s married. He has two kids.”
Xavier coughed and gulped.
“You’re screwing around with a married guy?!”
“He’s my boss.”
“He takes me places. We do things. Places I couldn’t go with you. Expensive places.”
Xavier’s face soured.
“Don’t ruin this, Xavier. You said you could handle this.”
“Yes. Yes. We’re friends.”
And that’s when they changed the conversation to the Yankees.
It was a few days before a holiday weekend, and Home Depot was crowded with customers filled with illusions of finishing some half-baked renovations in the kitchen.
Xavier found it hard to concentrate on helping the customers. His mind was on Pammie.
Xavier had no anger at Pammie. He cared about her. Loved her. He was impressed with her commitment to success, of getting ahead in life. She was the only girl he ever knew who carried about a “Goal Notebook” in which she outlined each day’s intended achievements.
If he was furious at anyone, it was her boss. Some rich Manhattan guy, who inherited his real estate business from his father, and never had a hardship in all his life. And now he’s fucking some girl in the office for fun. Some chick from the Bronx.
Xavier wondered what this dude would think about him if he walked into the Home Depot right now. Would he even look into his eyes? Could he imagine that someone as inconsequential as himself once shared a bed with Pammie? Does he even know Pammie’s full name? Or is she just some little whore from the Bronx for him to use when his wife is too busy doing her charity work?
The rage spread to Xavier’s fist. He grabbed a hammer from Aisle 5 and with full force, smashed it against the wall, cracking it.
“What the fuck…?” asked Johnson, the floor supervisor, on seeing Xavier with the hammer in his hand.
“I’m taking an early lunch,” said Xavier, and left the store to take the nearest subway into midtown Manhattan.
Langstein Realty was located at 350 Park Avenue. It was noon. Outside the office building, Pammie was chatting with Bruce Langstein, the CEO, and Edgar Wiseman, the top realtor of the firm. They were waiting for Marvin. They had reservations for four at Matisse on Madison.
Pammie didn’t notice Xavier walking towards them, his veins popping in his forehead. Xavier was heading straight for Bruce, Pammie’s boss.
A second later would become the destruction of the long friendship between Xavier and Pammie, once again proving that common wisdom in the Bronx is always right.
It was a hot summer day, when lazy minds drift off into the humidity. A family sat on the bench, waiting for the bus, after a morning of shopping at the Chinese supermarket.
“How come Jen won’t let me play poker tonight?” wondered the Dad. “I married a control freak.”
“When is school starting?” wondered the first Son. “I hate my family.”
“What’s wrong with playing Minecraft all day?” wondered the second Son. “I never get to do anything I want.”
“Why did we stop using birth control?” wondered the Mom. “I don’t want another kid.”
Scottie watched the family from the steps of the library, imagining the thoughts of each person appearing over their heads, as if they were characters in a cartoon strip. He was eating his lunch — a plastic bowl of cold noodles from the dumpling place next to Starbucks.
“What suckers!” he thought, mocking the family as the Q41 bus pulled in, and they left the scene.
Scottie tossed the plastic blue bowl, and headed into the library. It was time for work. He promised himself to write a certain number of words a day and was stuck on page twelve of his novel.
The library stank with children on summer vacation. Scottie didn’t the library at all. He disliked the shuffling of nervous students, the clicks of the keyboards, and the bad breath of the sweaty men reading the Chinese newspapers. But Scottie’s apartment wasn’t air-conditioned, and the library kept things a cool sixty-nine degrees. He even checked that with the woman at the circulation desk. Sixty-nine degrees, exactly.
Scottie liked saying hello to this librarian at the circulation desk. Her name was Margaret, a plain-looking librarian who wore the same blue nylon dress every day. She was even homely, with bags under her eyes and thinning hair, but he would ask her out for a date, that is if he could build up the nerve. He had lost all confidence in himself and his work. Ever since the divorce, the losing of custody of his two children, Max and Ellie, and Cheryl’s move to Austin, Scottie felt alone and needing of family.
Like many children growing up in the 1960s, Ben learned his life skills by watching Sesame Street. By kindergarten, Ben could recite the alphabet and count to ten. The moral philosophy of the PBS became Ben’s guiding principle of life — he believed that people of all races and backgrounds could live together in harmony, even if his own family couldn’t do the same.
In later life, Sesame Street never prepared Ben for unemployment at age 50, or for his divorce with Angela, his wife of 20 years. But through a set of circumstances that could only be described as ironic, Ben fell into a part-time job playing Big Bird in Central Park, hawking photos from tourists visiting the city.
Big Bird was never Ben’s favorite from the show. He acted like a pussy. He preferred Oscar the Grouch, who reminded him of his father, a gruff man who used to drink his beer from a can while watching his cop shows.
But needing the money, Ben faked a good Big Bird, nailing the speech and mannerisms, and the kids of Central Park — youth of all colors and creeds — loved him, tugging his feathers as if he was their long lost friend. He made a few good tips too; frantic parents shoved shriveled five dollar bills into his big bird hands. Ben hated his new job. He felt deep deep shame. But gradually, Ben learned to control his tears by reciting the alphabet and counting to ten.
In her old life, Michelle used to walk past Cynthia, the mousy neighbor in apartment 3D, never uttering a word. Michelle had nothing in common with this shy librarian.
But six months after her accident, Michelle’s friends stopped calling, as did her boyfriend. She didn’t blame them; she knew the life of a high pressure career, having been a news director at CBS News. New York City is a race and there is no waiting for the fallen.
But when loneliness and deep depression became Michelle’s only visitors to her Manhattan apartment, it was Cynthia who brought books to read, food to share, and encouragement to heal.
Never had Michelle felt such warmth towards anyone as when Cynthia took her arm and said, “You will walk. You will work. You will find love again. Baby steps.”
The following flash fiction was inspired by the people of New York, and the street photography that captures the diversity and excitement of the city. The story, names, and situations are all 100% fictional. Photo and story by Neil Kramer.
Don received an email this morning from his old friend, Gregory, who still worked the coat room at the Hilton. It read, “She’s checking out at noon and taking a car service to JFK.”
Emily was flying back to Northern California. Emily. Beautiful Emily. Don debated whether to rush over and make things right, but he was terrified of her reaction. Could he tell this glamorous young woman, with no cares in the world, that a man as unimportant as himself was her father?
Mahmood never turned his back towards Love. His intention was to send for Husna when he felt settled in his adopted city. It was Husna who betrayed him, marrying the next available suitor, a young teacher in Rawalpindi. Allah saw the truth, if no one else did. It was Love that turned her back towards Mahmood. As he sat with the apples, pears, and pineapples, refreshments for the tourists, he knew that he would never again taste a fruit as delicious as Husna’s kiss.