Ben Wexler was observing the one-year anniversary of his wife’s bailing from their marriage by having breakfast at Rosenblatt’s, the kosher deli Victoria despised. It seemed a fitting way to mark the occasion. Quietly spiteful, darkly ironic. She probably didn’t think of herself as anti-Semitic. She had married a Jew after all. Though she may have thought of it as her own personal pogrom, destroying the race one man at a time. There had been little comments when they first started dating, Ben’s overhearing Victoria reassure her daughter on the phone that Ben wasn’t “very” Jewish. He didn’t take it as malicious. Coming from her sweet and unassuming face, he chalked it up to her being raised in a family of Irish alcoholics, whose small-minded prejudices had seeped unexamined into her psyche. (Unlike Ben, whose loftier mind would never sink to reducing anyone’s family to a cultural stereotype.)
After two previous marriages, one short, the other of significant duration, Ben was confident he had nailed it this time with Victoria. All the obvious battlegrounds were neutralized. They were age appropriate, they were in good health, had good jobs, zero debt, their habits of hygiene, tolerance for spontaneity, need for privacy, and sexualappetites were all remarkably compatible. They were done with raising their kids from previous marriages– Ben’s two warring sons, Victoria’s plaintive, well-married daughter. So the ending, which had been brutal and cold as the month of February, completely blindsided him.
Everyone who’s been through a few relationships knows that the one they are in probably won’t last forever. Out of this empathic understanding that all of us will one day be the leaver or the left, a kind of implied Geneva Convention has evolved that establishes a hierarchy of civility by which the bad news ought to be delivered, ranking the various choices from classy to shithole. Up at the top is the face-to-face. You put your hands down at your sides. You don’t duck. You take the full shit storm of anger because they deserve at least that. Below the face-to-face in descending order of courage comes the phone call, the letter, the email, the emissary. Way down at the far low end would be things like murder, posting sex tapes, forging letters from the Board of health naming his or her ex-lovers as people who have tested positive for HIV. Not far above those extremes is the text message.
Ben was trapped at a weekend-long departmental retreat when his I Phone pinged. He was Director of Athletic Communications up at the university. Driven by the spate of sex scandals at other institutions, a phalanx of lawyers from the chancellor’s office had imposed a mandatory Preparedness Workshop. Ben was nearly comatose from the eleventh PowerPoint presentation, this one aligning seriousness of offence with frequency of occurrence to yield appropriate responses, when mercifully (he thought) there was a diversion. When he logged on, the following message appeared on his screen.
When you get home today you will
see that I have moved out. Send any mail
for me back to the Post Office. Let them figure
it out. There’s nothing more to say.
Her message contained neither salutation nor signature, nothing to fan the slightest current of warm air to its icy body temperature. Ben tapped his colleague Daniel on the shoulder. They were down at the far end of the conference table, out of direct eye contact of the square-shouldered, middle-aged black woman who was leading the current segment. Daniel furrowed his forehead into long disapproving rows of irrigation ditches. “Is this a joke?” His gravelly voice was louder than he meant it to be and drew a sharp rebuke from the chairperson that this was a serious matter, and if one did not believe it, one had only to read the papers or to look at TV.
Victoria had never liked the food at Rosenblatt’s. The soup was too salty, the eggs were too dry, the pickles were mealy, the atmosphere garish. All the things that made Rosenblatt’s Rosenblatt’s. Late nights she preferred the 24 hour chains; Norm’s or Denny’s or DuPars. She liked tuna and chicken salad. Sandwiches with mayonnaise. He knew she would not recall his quirks with nostalgia. And he was equally certain she was unaware that today marked their relationship yahrtzeit, the one year anniversary of its death; that its subtle awareness did not creep up on her in the preceding weeks as it does with the death of a parent. It puzzled him that he still thought of her as often as he did, was so keenly aware of places he might drive past that they had been together. They had not been married for all that long. Single digits counting dating and a few months cohabitation prior to the wedding. They had seen each other through no profound loss. The indentation into the heart muscle should not have been deep. It should have reassumed its original shape like those new foam mattresses did once the weight-bearing body vacated.
It bothered him that he could not get to the bottom of it. He was a literal-minded, cause-and-effect kind of guy. Anything that happened needed to have a reason. Newton’s Laws of Motion applied to relationships. Every action had an equal and opposite reaction. Bodies in motion tend to remain in motion at the same speed and direction unless acted upon by an outside force. The thing with Victoria had different weights, different sums on either side of the equal sign. It didn’t add up. Her departure had come at the end of a week of skirmishing: The flash point of the battle had been over a gripe that one or the other of them had raised over some done or undone act of overt or unconscious intention, which within very few back-and-forth strokes across the net had escalated into the patterns their arguments usually took—His anger, his lectures, his analogies, his silence. Her avoidance, her changing her story, her apparent surrender, her exaggerated penance. He knew the rules of that game. Where the unexploded ordinance was buried, how close he could come to the brink without triggering the doomsday machine. But he could not find the trigger that had made it go nuclear. She had self-detonated. And she had refused to tell him anything. Would not open his written letters, deleted his emails, consigned his phone calls to voice mail.
Even now, in the truce around a reasonable divorce settlement, he’d have thought that whatever source of nameless anger she had held then would have dissipated, and that she’d want to examine the past like two old friendly adversaries. Now that nothing at all was at stake. But still she avoided any personal exploration. It was maddening. He remembered those early, openhearted days, when Victoria wanted him to know her. She had invited him to attend her AA birthday meeting. When Victoria was called to the podium to accept her cake for twelve years of sobriety Ben was surprised at the professional panache with which she told her story: How it was when she was drinking and falling face-first into suburban rose bushes, forgetting to pick up her kids at school, or flirting with their male teachers. All this madness had happened years before Ben knew her. Hearing her describe that life, it seemed to Ben like another person talking about yet another person. But it made him feel intimate with her and on the verge of love. Then at her thirteenth she told the same story nearly verbatim. With the same pauses, the same intonations.
Clusters of people were waiting at the front of the restaurant alongside the bakery and appetizing counters to be seated. Ben felt self-conscious about dawdling. He mopped up the remaining shards of his scrambled egg whites and onions with the last eighth of his buttered bagel when he saw an elderly man get to his feet from a booth at the back end of the restaurant. The guy had to be ninety, dressed as many elderly Jewish men did, in a dapper sport coat, a pressed white shirt and slacks, a trim necktie, and all topped off with a jaunty chapeau. It may have been a flash of sunlight across the man’s glasses, but Ben thought he caught a glimpse of an alert sense of humor. The long arduous journey to the front of the restaurant could have mirrored his ancestors’ crossing the Russian Steppes. Ben’s booth was about the halfway point between Vladivostok and Petersburg, and when at last the old man came into range, Ben elevated from his perch and sang out “Uncle,” a respectful greeting he remembered from reading Sholom Aleichem stories in his youth.
The welcoming gesture was somewhat tempered by Ben’s nearly toppling over, the result of the circulation in his bent leg having been cut off. The old man was startled at first, then fearful that he should know who this person was but could not place him. A relative, God forbid. Ben touched the man’s shoulder as though his frame might be made of spun glass. “I thought you might want to rest. Sit. Have a cup of coffee.”
“A cup of coffee? This is all you’re offering? Coffee I can get anyplace.” Ben was taken aback for a moment. The man’s face shook very slowly. Ben realized he was witnessing mirth played at one-tenth its normal speed. Bracing one hand on the back of the booth and the other on the edge of the table, the old man lowered his chrysalis of a body slowly down.
“So.” He looked across the table to Ben. “You’re Jewish?”
Ben nodded robust assurance. “Vu den?” These were the first words of Yiddish Ben had ever uttered in a conversation, and probably represented sixty percent of his full vocabulary.
“You go to temple?’
“Well…not so much lately. God can probably do without me.”
“What God can do without is not the kvestion.”
The waitress was a tall stocky blonde of fifty who had taken a few wrong turns off Easy Street. Her nametag said Sunny, which had to be a joke. “Anything else?” She had the check in hand ready to slap down on the table. Ben nodded to his guest on the other side of the booth.
“Oh, it’s you?” she said when she saw who was sitting there. “I thought we were rid of you today.” Her voice carried a gruff familiarity. Like a daughter-in-law who after thirty years of being constantly irked by her husband’s father, comes to love him more deeply than the man she married.
“A nice glass of hot tea would be nice,” the old man said.
“A glass of tea?”
“Tea. In a glass. Like a human being.”
Ben turned to translate the order to Sunny.
I know what he wants,” she said.
“Friendly girl,” Ben joked after she had wheeled abruptly away. He extended his hand across the table and told the man his name
“Ben?” The old man seemed amused. “A very modern name.”
“No. Wasn’t Benjamin somebody in the bible?” He was suddenly feeling the need to assert his Judaic identity, which he had previously cared as much about as being right-handed.
“If I’ll tell you what’s a name…Alexi Ivanovich Balabanoff. This is a name.”
“That’s a name all right.”
“And if I’ll tell you what they changed it to, the goyim at Ellis Island? To Alan Bland. This you call a name? This is an affliction.”
“I’ll tell you another name that’s an affliction. Victoria Baines.”
“Baines? He said the name like something was caught in his teeth. “What did they change it from, Bialistock?
“From Wexler? How do you change a name to Baines from Wexler?”
“It’s simple. You divorce Wexler. You want to see something funny?” Ben pushed his Iphone up in front of Alexi Ivanovich’s with the text message blared across the screen. “That’s how you change from Wexler to Baines.” He was used to people reading the message and blowing ‘whew’-shaped gusts of air from their mouths. For a while those downdrafts were all that had kept Ben afloat.
Sunny returned with the glass of hot tea. She served it in a saucer with a long spoon and four sugar cubes. Alexi Ivanovich set two cubes in each side of his mouth, then inverted the sugar dispenser over his glass and let it pour straight down for five, six, seven seconds. Ben scolded him with exaggerated severity. “Don’t you know all that sugar’ll kill you?”
Alexi jabbed his index finger toward the glass. “When I was in a Nazi death camp nobody had sugar.” Before the sugar had stopped cascading the old man was telling the story of his breathtaking escape from Auschwitz in the arms of his father. In his offhand manner he described living off whatever they could find to eat in the forest, pursued by the German SS, and how one day they came upon an abandoned gypsy camp with a ham still roasting on the open fire, and even though they were starving his father would never let them eat pork. “You know what’s tref?”
“Yes, I know what tref is! My name is Ben not Brian.”
Alexi Ivanovich took a sip of his tea and added more sugar. Ben restrained the impulse to point out that the tea was already supersaturated and could not absorb any more. Young Alexi and his father miraculously made it to Moscow, to what they thought would be safety. But now they found themselves fleeing from a regiment of Russian infantry who thought they were German spies. They were just emerging from the manhole into Red Square when Sunny returned and plunked down their amended check. “I’ve got people waiting.”
Ben politely deferred to his companion. “Can I get you anything else? A Danish? A bagel? A piece of strudel? I want to hear the rest of the story.” Sunny waited like she had been enduring a debate on C-Span. “I guess not.” Ben finally said.
“You pay up front.”
“I know where I pay. I’ve been coming here for twenty years.”
Alexi began to gather himself.
“Wait. You left me in Moscow with you and your father coming up out of a manhole and half the Russian army waiting. I want to know what happened!”
“What happened? What could happen? They killed him.”
Ben’s head snapped back. He had been so geared toward an unexpected miracle that when the ending came so ghastly and sudden, he blurted out some idiotic response like, “How can that be!”
“This was also my thought at the time.”
“What did you do?”
“What does a person do?”
“I don’t know! What does a person do?” It sounded like a supplication.
Alexi poured another spume of sugar into his tea, stirred it. The crystals whirled around in centrifugal currents and eddies. He tasted it. A smile burst over his face. He raised his index finger above his head like a man who had found the lost chord.
Ben did not want to appear unworthy of the wisdom being imparted to him. “So, are you telling me that the question isn’t how to avoid unbearable catastrophe? Because there is no avoiding them? But that the question is how to recover?”
“You’re a very smart boy.” Which he may have meant as a compliment or a reprimand. He thanked Ben for the tea and began the arduous effort of getting to his feet.
“But you’re not going to tell me the secret?”
“Boychik, what secret?”
“How do you recover?”
Ben sensed a trace of impatience in the old man’s voice that he needed to be taught such a basic lesson.
“Listen to me. In my village of Simbirsk there was a boy I went to school with. This boy was such a trumbernik like you shouldn’t know. A bondeet, do you understand? Rules weren’t made for him. In the capital, the Czar Nicholas III, he should rot in hell with vermin crawling in his chest, had been murdered. Stabbed to death. You understand that to the Czars, Jews were like so many pieces of charcoal.
Ben nodded solemnly that he knew.
“Spies had told the palace guard that the assassin’s brother lived in our village. So one day a regiment of soldiers rode into Simbirsk. They rounded up all the boys, brought them to the town square and said they would kill us one by one, the smallest one first, if someone did not confess the identity of the scoundrel who shed the beloved Czar’s royal blood. This was after they had ransacked the storehouses, burned all the grain, razed the schoolhouse, and turned pigs loose in the synagogue to show us that they were not here on vacation. Of course nobody spoke. Who did they think we were, their cattle, their goats who would bleat at the point of a knife?
“So they pulled the youngest boy out of line and forced him to his knees. The major himself held his sword high above the head of the child. In the next moment he would be dead. But if I’ll tell you what happened next? The boy they were looking for, the boy whose brother had killed the Czar, was hiding all along up in a peach tree in the center of the square. Such a peach tree this was like you never saw. Every year it produced fruit for the entire village. Hundreds of peaches. Thousands of peaches. So sweet like you wouldn’t know.
“He stood up in the notch between the two boughs where he was hiding and called out to them: ‘The one you are looking for is here.’ The branches were dark as iron from the rains. His head slammed into the branch directly above him and stuck into the soft spot in his scalp. So when he jumped down out of the tree, a whole umbrella of branches, like deer’s antlers, was embedded in his head. He stood in front of the Cossack major, with his gold buttons up and down his uniform and a mustache that looked embarrassed to be growing on such a face.
“The boy spit on the ground at the major’s boots. ‘This land belongs to everyone,’ he said. ‘Russia is our mother and we are all her children.’ The major could not appear to be frightened, but if I’ll tell you that man was frightened to look at that boy. From the top of his head was a peach tree. But in his eyes was a look so fierce the devil would run from it. With his scimitar the major swiped at the tree. His blade flashed this close to the boy’s face and cleaved off the ripest peach. The boy didn’t flinch. The Major took a bite. Then he lowered his sword. He knelt down and kissed the earth and said ‘thank you mother Russia.’
“He sent the regiment out to clear the swine from the temple, to rebuild the schoolhouse, and put the grain back on the stalks so it would ripen. The swine from the temple they could clear. The schoolhouse, they can start to rebuild. But you can’t put the grain back on the stalk.”
“So what did you do?”
“Boychik you’re in America too long. What you do is you do without. When it comes time to plant again you hope you’re still alive and that this time the Cossacks don’t come.”
Ben’s voice was tender with understanding. “Was that you? Were you the boy with the peach tree growing from his head?”
“Me? No.” A roguish twinkle shone through his wrinkled face. “But if I’ll tell you who that boy was. The boy with the peach tree growing out of his head?” His voice attained magnitude. “That was Leneeen.”
Ben’s jaw hung. “Are you telling me you went to school with Lenin?”
Alexi’s shoulders came up to meet his earlobes in a timeless Talmudic shrug. “Who knew then from Leneen? Until then he was just Ulyanov, a boy with a terrible handwriting. You understand what I’m saying?”
Ben nodded a tentative yes. In his own childhood, he had been a boy with a peach tree growing out of his head. He had lived in Brooklyn in a small house with a neat little back yard. Rose bushes on both sides. And smack in the center of the yard was a huge peach tree. Every summer it produced an incredible bounty. He remembered the juices running down the hollow of his neck and that he had thought of it as liquid summer. When his mother got pregnant they needed to move to a bigger place. It was early May. The new crop of peaches was just starting. All fuzzy and green and hard, the size of olives. On moving day Ben climbed up into the crevasses of the two largest boughs and watched the guys come and haul everything out. He wanted to watch them load up the truck. The bough was slippery. His head bashed against the branch directly above him. The nub of a twig became embedded right into the baby spot. He tried to pull it out but it was really stuck and he was afraid if he tugged too hard it would tear off the top of his head.
He had watched his mother put peach pits into jars of water, and after a while they would start to produce roots. He pictured the same thing happening in his head. The thing spreading veiny tentacles down into his brain, a whole root system taking it over. Now he saw Alexi looking at the upturned cell phone like it was the moral of the story. “I see. You’re saying I should delete her text. Is that it?” The phone was in the palm of his left hand. “That’s it, isn’t it? It’s not about the avoidance of disaster, it’s about recovery. Thank you!” He read Victoria’s text message one more time, swallowed it whole like a cyanide pill, and then pressed DELETE. The words existed for one more moment of afterburn on his retina display. And then they were gone.
A thickset woman with heavy features had come into the restaurant and was waiting for Alexi at the cash register. She berated him as they went out the door together. He put his arm on her shoulder. She brushed it off. He put it back. She shook her head at him and let it stay. On his way back home, Ben remembered he was out of milk. He stopped at his local market and came home with apples, raisin bran, pumpkin ravioli, toilet paper, and brown rice. He made coffee before he realized he had forgotten to buy the one thing he had gone there for. It made him picture the look Victoria would have given him if they were still together. He was surprised as he pictured her face, to recognize for the first time how clear it was that she simply had not liked him.
Her green coffee mug was still in the cabinet. The one she had bought on their honeymoon in Corrientes. It was not an oversight that she had left it here. She was too meticulous for that. Ben took it down from the shelf and tossed it into the trash. It nestled on top of a wad of paper towels at the top of the garbage can he had used the previous night to mop up a minor juice-making incident. There was more of her stuff here than just the cup. It was like he was suddenly seeing with a night vision camera all the things he had allowed to settle into the environment. He purged the Mixmaster, a set of steak knives, some Tiffany cut glass wedding gifts. He gathered them up in his arms, walked deliberately outside and set them outside at the curb.
He held on to one of her books. Not as a sentimental keepsake. He had never seen her read it. It was just interesting. It was called The Time Tables of History. The pages were set up in columns, listing all the events in the arts and science and politics and history that happened simultaneously, starting from Early Man and going right up to the present. He had always liked knowing what went with what and where things were in relation to other things. As a kid when he had gotten a new globe for his ninth birthday he had traced circles of latitude around the globe to see which cities were at the same latitude. He was shocked to discover that New York and London were not parallel. Not even close. London was as far north as Moscow.
He wanted to see what else of monumental importance had happened on the day Victoria had left him. But the book only went up to 1985. He flipped back idly through a few decades. Maybe Russia was on his mind after hearing Alexi Ivanovich’s tale. He discovered an amazing pairing of symmetrical events that happened in 1849: The California gold rush AND the Communist Manifesto. The defining events of the two combating ideologies of the twentieth century, Capitalism and Communism, conceived simultaneously. What, if anything, should be made of that? Was the synchronicity of events due to cause or coincidence? That was what made him crazy. He knew which one he wanted it to be. If you know why things went wrong it would be in your power to avert them.
He remembered on their trip to Argentina when she read the map wrong and got them lost in the mountains and he had said it was ok, absolving her by his largesse, but not by pulling to the side of the road, pressing both her hands in his and telling her how ecstatic and grateful he was that she was in the car with him exploring this beautiful unknown place, and that as long as they were together they couldn’t ever be lost. He knew he could have done that right then, and didn’t. Couldn’t. Wouldn’t. And if he had? Would everything that followed that moment have been different? Or, would every moment his of life that preceded that moment need to have been different for him to become the man capable of doing it? Or did he just not love her enough, even then?
Ben was not consciously looking in the Timetable book for anything about Lenin. But when he came upon his life history he stopped to read about him. Lenin was one of those topics you think you know about, but you really don’t. Like how the Electoral College works or photosynthesis. Lenin was born Simbirsk, just like Alexi Ivanovich had said, in the year 1870. His name was originally Ulyanov. He became Russian Premier in 1922 and then. Ben had to stop for a moment and look back at those dates. Born in 1870? If Alexi Ivanovich had gone to school with Lenin they had to be somewhere around the same age. So, born in 1870. School in 1878. That would have made him sixty-five when he escaped from the Nazi prison camp in his father’s arms and saw him gunned down in the Moscow sewer system? How old would that make him now? A hundred and forty? The holes in the old man’s narrative cascaded around Ben’s ears. What the hell was that cockamamie story about Lenin having a peach tree growing out of his head? He had a horrible spasm of panic that in getting rid of Victoria’s remnants and deleting her text he had done something horribly irrevocable. He ran outside to the curb to retrieve her things. But everything had already been scavenged.
He came back inside in a fog. He pulled out his phone and pressed buttons in every combination looking for a way to retrieve her deleted text. Each effort was politely taunted by a message onscreen that said MESSAGE. The screen sat in his hand, a dead cold organ. What could he possibly do? Dive into cyberspace and gather up the disintegrated phosphor? Put the wheat back on the stalk? What was cut was cut. He’d have to wait until spring to replant, if he lived. And until then, to do without.