Tikkun Magazine, November/December 2004
A Short Story by Nan Fink Gefen
David arrived at the Indian restaurant a few minutes early and made his way past the ceramic statues of elephants and the colorful paintings of women in saris to a table in the rear. He’d chosen this place to meet Maya because it was quiet enough to talk. It had been a year since he’d seen her—and then only at a distance, with her husband—but recently he couldn’t stop thinking about her. Something remained unfinished between them, getting in the way of his closeness with Lee, the woman he now was dating. He’d emailed Maya and she answered right away, saying yes, she’d been thinking of him, too, and shouldn’t they get together.
A gold-framed mirror hung by the table and David glanced at himself, a lean, middle-aged man with rimless glasses, a respectable presence. He knew his strengths—calmness and clarity of thought—and his weaknesses—a touch of rigidity and unsociability. During the time he’d lived with Maya in Portland, she’d forced him out of his reticence with her constant jostling, her unpredictable moods, her music and her laughter. He’d thought of her as a slash of bright red to his subtle blue, and the image pleased him. But eventually he’d been overwhelmed by the chaos of her life and he yearned for the quiet he had once known. Five years ago he left her, the best he could do, and he told himself that the split was inevitable, that certain colors do not belong together.
Maya rushed into the restaurant, late as always. “I couldn’t find a parking spot,” she said in her throaty voice. “I’m in someone’s driveway and I have to move, but I wanted to let you know I’m here.”
“I’ll wait,” he said, amused by how some things never change.
She ran from the restaurant, her long silk scarf flying, and David started to read the menu, impatient for her return. He already felt unsettled by her, but that was to be expected: she always had that effect. It was her chestnut hair spilling from its clip, her full mouth, her quick gestures, and most of all, her eyes, radiant and turquoise.
Ten minutes passed, and the thrill of seeing Maya started to fade. Fishing through his briefcase for something to read, David found a brochure he’d picked up at the museum last week with Lee. They’d gone to a photography exhibition, and as they strolled through the gallery, she spoke with great insight about distance and proportion, and he’d been intrigued by her understanding. Theirs was a softer intimacy than he’d had with Maya, but exciting in its own way.
Maya finally returned, breathless. “I bumped into someone on the street,” she said, sliding into her seat. “Her daughter’s acting out all over the place, and she needed to talk.”
“Let’s order.” David’s tone was short. “I’m hungry.”
Maya held the menu close to her face, straining to read, and David watched her for a moment. “Is something wrong with your eyes?” he asked. She began to tell him about the problem she was having. “Maybe you need reading glasses.” he said, softening.
“I’ve been putting it off.” She smiled at him, her face filled with light. “You’re always so sensible, David. It’s really good to see you.”
David felt himself dissolve into her gaze, but this was dangerous, something to be avoided, and he called the waiter over so that they could order. “How are things going with you and Mariano?” he asked her. Mariano was Maya’s husband of three years, and David had been at their wedding, a noisy celebration that lasted late into the night with Israeli dancing and boisterous toasts from her many friends.
“We have our ups and downs,” she answered. She told him about Mariano’s search for employment—a frustrating experience for a talented set designer—and her new position teaching creative writing at the community college. “It’s hard when one person is discouraged and the other has a really great job. But we’re working it out.”
The waiter brought their vegetarian thalis, and as they began to eat. Maya lifted her eyes to David again. “But, tell me, how are you? I hear you have a new romance.”
David began to talk about Lee, picturing her in his mind as he spoke. Lee resembled the graceful Indian women in the paintings on the restaurant wall, slender and composed, her black hair shiny, her eyes amused and intelligent. He thought of the solitude that surrounded her and the tender, slow ways they touched. “We get along wonderfully,” he said.
“Is she Jewish?” Maya asked.
David paused. This was the question that came closest to what bothered him about Lee. “Yes, but in name only. She’s really a Buddhist.”
“That’s a complication.”
He shrugged. “Not really. She’s one of the most developed people I’ve ever known.” But as he said this, he wished again that Lee shared his interest in Judaism. The night they’d talked about it, she said she found his enthusiasm inspiring, even beautiful, but she wasn’t drawn to the practice herself; she’d given up on Judaism because it didn’t seem spiritual. He’d felt disappointed in her response and didn’t know how to answer her, and he never brought up the subject again.
“No Shabbat?” Maya persisted.
Maya sighed deeply, a rumbling sound almost like a song. David had forgotten how much music came from her. “No Shabbat. No singing,” he said, remembering those times with Maya when Friday night drew near and they’d prepared together for Shabbat. She set the table with a white linen cloth and brightly colored flowers, humming fragments of melodies, and he hummed along as he sliced the vegetables for a salad. When twilight faded into darkness. Maya said: “Come, it’s time.” They stood together before the fireplace mantel and slowly, silently, lit the Shabbat candles. Then they began to sing. Maya’s rich contralto voice soared with the Hebrew prayers, opening them for him, inviting him in, leading him to other realms. The colors in the room—the purple of the rug, the gold of the tapestry—grew more radiant, and a feeling of peace entered him like he had never known.
David, the rationalist, loved Shabbat with Maya. It brought them into harmony, expanding him, settling her. It was what they did best. He loved the feeling of timelessness, away from his computer and his law practice, and each week he could hardly wait to enter this world. Maya had been his guide and he’d been a willing follower. “I really miss Shabbat,” he said softly to Maya.
“But can’t you still have it?” she asked.
David, for the first time, let himself look fully into her eyes. “It’s not the same without you, Maya.” He thought of all the Friday nights in recent years when he’d lit the Shabbat candles alone, or even with friends, but he never had that intense feeling of completion he’d had with her. After a while he became discouraged and stopped the practice, and he hadn’t even introduced it to Lee. Now, on Friday nights, they’d go out to dinner or catch a good film instead.
“It’s not the same for me, either,” Maya said.
“It was so beautiful.”
“Yes,” she sighed.
David grew quiet, reflecting on all they’d said. So this was it, the unfinished piece of their life together: They’d had the most magnificent Shabbats. David had hardly allowed himself to remember them, but he’d yearned for that state and mourned its absence these last five years. And now, looking at Maya, at her parted lips and her brilliant eyes, at this woman who had shown him such splendor, he couldn’t recall why he had left her. Surely they should be able to come back together again, continuing what they’d once had.
But suddenly Maya’s cell phone rang, and she rushed to answer it, spilling the contents of her purse on the floor, lipsticks and loose change rolling. “Oh, shit,” she said. “Hello?”
She could have hung up quickly but she launched into a conversation, making arrangements, chatting about an upcoming trip to Mexico. Finally she glanced at her watch. “God, I’m late,” she said to the person on the line. “I was supposed to be in a meeting by now.”
She turned off her cell phone and David watched as she got ready to leave, jamming everything into her purse, worrying that she’d never find her car. It seemed there was nothing more for him to say. And when she rushed off, kissing him goodbye, telling him how great it had been to see him, that they’d have to do it again some other time and maybe include Lee and Mariano, he shook his head in wonder. He loved this woman, he’d always love her for those Shabbats together, but he had been right: he couldn’t live with her the other six days of the week.
As David finished his tea, he felt light and full of laughter, and his mind stretched to the years ahead, all the years he could spend with Lee. He thought of her as pale purple, a color with depth and iridescence, a perfect match to his own subtle blue. In the future he would find a way to bring Shabbat into their lives, and it would be different from what he had known with Maya, not so exuberant or so complete with all the Hebrew prayers, but it would be beautiful in its own right. And Lee would teach him things, too. He pictured her sitting on her zafu in her bedroom, meditating as she did every morning, her back straight, her dark hair cascading over her shoulders, a sight that never failed to move him. She didn’t know yet about the splendor of Shabbat, but she understood more than he did about silence.
The waiter stopped by the table. “Anything else you need?” he asked.
“No, thanks, I’m ready to move on,” David smiled, with more conviction than he’d felt in a long time.
Nan Fink Gefen is the president of Chochmat HaLev, a center of Jewish meditation and spirituality in the San Francisco Bay Area. She was the founding publisher of TIKKUN from 1985-1990. The author of two nonfiction books, she is currently working on a novel.
Gefen, Nan Fink. 2004. The Gift. Tikkun 19(6):28