By Sandy Robinson
He’d been eating in the hospital cafeteria for the past three weeks, mostly pastrami sandwiches. He knew they weren’t good for his cholesterol, but they were such a comfort. He never bothered with mustard, didn’t want anything to take away from the pure essence of the peppery, spiced beef. He’d even considered asking the matronly server behind the counter to slap on a few more slices; he’d be happy to pay the difference. Pastrami sandwiches helped him forget that his wife, Edith, was upstairs dying.
He always sat at the same table, facing the windows. The nearby park with its clusters of oaks and poplars, the distant blue hills beyond, reminded him of Hungary, his homeland. After a week or so, with no change in his wife’s condition, Simon began to take notice of his surroundings. Most of his fellow diners wore surgical outfits—green, blue, drawstrings at the waist. Sitting in groups of eight or 10 at tables pushed together, they talked a lot and laughed so loudly that he felt the urge to join in, to laugh even though he hadn’t shared their jokes.
Of course, not everyone sat in groups. He’d noticed a young nurse eating lunch alone at one of the smaller tables. A sketchbook, with its familiar rouge-red cover, propped against her voluminous backpack. Simon had tried his hand at sketching and even dabbled in oil paints when he was younger and found the process daunting. He’d kept a pencil drawing he’d made of a shoe—one shoe, not a pair. It had taken 15 hours to draw a detailed shoe, the laces untied and somewhat worn.
Over the course of days, Simon decided he’d try finishing his lunch at the same time as the young woman with the sketchbook. That way he could pretend to accidentally bump into her at the cash register, and read the name on her nurse’s badge. Each day, he relished going over the details of his plan almost as much as he relished his pastrami sandwiches.
Upstairs in room 18B, as Simon watched his wife drowse away the hours, he could barely wait to attach the nurse’s name to his fantasies, which expanded daily. If his simple plan of accidentally bumping into the nurse didn’t work—the thought that it might not made him feel lightheaded—he envisioned walking over to her table and, as a fellow artist, asking to see her sketches. Although he’d been living in the states for close to 40 years, his speech still had traces of his origins, and he was well aware of how Americans are enchanted by foreign accents. He could lay it on thick when he wanted to. If the young woman asked to see his artwork, he would tell her how the Communists wouldn’t let him take anything out of the country when he’d fled. He smiled at the thought that he might be able to reinvent himself.
He had the nurse’s physical attributes fixed in his mind. Of course, from a few tables away he couldn’t see whether or not she was wearing a wedding or engagement ring. Her red hair was a shade lighter than the cinnamon he sprinkled liberally on his oatmeal each morning. He guessed she was in her mid-to late twenties, approximately 5’4”, a slender 105 pounds, tops. Still, she had curves in the right places, although he preferred a more Reubenesque figure. But who was he to be fussy, a 60-year-old man who would be a widower in a number of days?
Simon planned to shave extra-closely the morning of the anticipated encounter, and above all, to bring along an extra pair of eyeglasses in case his everyday pair got knocked off when he bumped into the nurse. According to his doctor, Simon had the body and blood pressure of a man 20 years younger, but, without his glasses, the world was out of focus.
In Room 18B, with Edith asleep or in and out of a semi-coma—he was never sure which—Simon, basking in the warm sunlight coming through the tall windows, spent some of the tedious hours reflecting on his past life in Hungary. He’d never told anyone, not even Edith, about the woman, the wife, he’d left behind. Margrete. Brave, sweet Margrete, his childhood sweetheart, had remained behind to take care of her mother and elderly aunts. Simon had promised he would contact her. When she was ready to join him in America, he would send money.
The day they’d wed—a simple ceremony at the village town hall—the mayor had been reluctant to officiate, even tried to talk Simon out of marrying Margrete. “With so many Catholic girls waiting to get married, why would you want to marry a woman with a Jewish grandmother? Why would you knowingly put your eternal soul in danger?”
“This is the woman I want for my wife! Do you ask everyone such…such uncivil questions?” Simon felt like screaming ‘stupid oaf,’ like smacking the mayor in the face, but he knew from experience, that nothing earthly could change the rigid bias of a man with three crucifixes dangling around his neck. Would it matter to this brute that he and Margrete wrote poetry together, that on quiet nights snuggled under an enormous feather bed, they read Shakespeare aloud to each other? Of course not.
A few months after their wedding, the Communists overran the country. Refusing to serve in the army or become a member of the Communist Party undoubtedly meant Simon would be hunted down, sent to a labor camp, or possibly killed. For Margrete, with her deceased Jewish grandmother, the circumstances were even more frightening.
By bribing local officials with his mother’s silver wedding ring, his grandmother’s gold earrings, two oil paintings, and money, and by writing letters—even love letters—for officials who’d never had a formal education, Simon managed to arrange for two exit visas. But when the time came for their departure, Margrete, an only child, refused to leave her family to face the unknown. Later, she would join Simon. Later.
In a moment of pique, Simon recalled the mayor’s words, yelling, “Only a girl with a Jewish grandmother would choose to stay here instead of coming with me.” When Margrete burst into tears, he apologized, but added, “What if I never earn enough money to bring you to America? What if I get sick and die? You won’t even know it.”
“We’ll find each other,” she said. “I promise.”
Simon had had every intention of sending for Margrete, but right from the start things began to go wrong. His first night in America, he’d tried for hours to make a phone call to Stanislaus, Margrete’s cousin in Pennsylvania, but had misunderstood how to get information on the pay phone. How many quarters had he lost trying to reach the operator, repeatedly dialing the small ‘o’ in m-n-o on the face of the pay phone, instead of the large ‘O’ that would have brought him the operator’s voice? He became discouraged, confused. It wouldn’t do to show his ignorance in a new country. Although he had no reason to think he might be deported, he still worried that the Immigration Service might send him back if he did something stupid. Sometime in the future then, he would contact Stanislaus and Margrete. But he never had.
Now, in the sterile hush of Edith’s hospital room, he wondered if he’d truly tried hard enough to bring Margrete to America. In the beginning there were excuses: finding decent work, cooking his meals, going to night school to improve his English, the laundry. So many evenings he’d sat down to write, only to fall asleep, pencil in hand.
Leaning his chair back against the hospital wall, Simon recalled how, a few months after his arrival in America, he’d been notified by the Immigration Service that a letter postmarked Hungary was waiting for him. On a bitterly cold day, he’d ridden the subway downtown, his mind filled with worry, his armpits damp with fear. Had one of his parents died? Was there a terrible food shortage? Had someone in his family been accused of a crime and taken into custody? Simon stared at his shadowy reflection in the subway car’s dull, dusty window. The screeching roar of the train against the steel rails echoed his father’s screams on the day he announced he was migrating. Why hadn’t he written to anyone back home, not Margrete, not even his mother? In the flickering darkness of the subway tunnel, Simon’s excuses for not writing seemed inadequate. Inexcusable. Selfish.
Inside the dreary Immigration Service building, Simon stopped the first person he saw and asked, “Do you know where is to find my letter from Hungary?” After wandering the halls, questioning a number of people, Simon finally located the right department. “Do you know where is I can find my letter from Hungary?” he asked the clerk, while cautiously handing over his papers. The clerk gave him a bored look and returned a few minutes later, presenting Simon with an envelope as fragile as onionskin. Margrete’s handwriting—he recognized it immediately—the curlicues, the way the syllables in every word were disconnected, as if each syllable were the beginning of a new word.
He folded the unopened letter and stuffed it in his wallet, where it remained for several days. When he finally felt calm enough to tear it open, when he was tired of tormenting himself with doubts and frightening scenarios, the news turned out to be as bad as he’d imagined. The Communists had taken two of Margrete’s male cousins into custody for “Peoples’ Crimes.” Beaten, dragged away, they’d never been heard from or seen again. Other villagers had disappeared as well. ‘Do not write. It will only get us in trouble,’ Margrete warned.
A few days after he made the troubling decision not to contact Margrete, Simon found himself seated at a Woolworth’s lunch counter across from a pleasant-looking young woman who was crying, softly, into a handkerchief. Simon was in especially good spirits, as he’d received a paycheck that day, as well as a compliment from his boss, who had said that a great number of the dentists who’d ordered false teeth, partials, and bridges from his dental lab were very impressed with Simon’s ability, and that if Simon kept up the good work, he would be in line for a raise. Dying to share his good news, Simon carried his cheeseburger to the other side of the counter and awkwardly squeezed onto the empty stool next to the young woman. In the tight space, their hips brushed, their elbows touched. Leaning toward her, Simon said, “You are crying? Your heart breaks?”
The young woman blew her nose. When she turned, her face was so close to his, Simon couldn’t help but notice how the rims of her eyes and the tip of her nose were the same pinky red as her lipstick, and that her eyelashes were incredibly thick. She squinted at him for just a moment, and then looked away, as if trying to decide whether he was a lecher, a nuisance, or simply a compassionate person.
When she didn’t respond, Simon added, “I am happy and you are unhappy. I have no one to tell my good fortune.”
She gave a little sigh. “I’m glad someone has good fortune.” Her voice was distant, flat, almost sarcastic, as if she weren’t convinced.
Simon ventured, “Your good fortune is very bad today, yes?”
Laughing, she turned toward him and said, “I’m Edith, and I want you to know…I don’t usually talk to strange men…and I don’t usually cry at lunch counters.” Then as if she’d reconsidered her words, her voice got stronger, more serious. “And don’t get any strange ideas just because I’m talking to you. Don’t think I want to have anything to do with you. Got it?”
“Edith? This is a good name,” Simon said, smiling, nodding. “I’m Simon Edith, did you know you . have eyelashes enough for two people?”
The day after he met Edith, Simon stopped bringing his usual lunch of cabbage soup and buttered dark bread to work and began eating lunch exclusively at Woolworth’s, hoping that Edith’s lunch hour coincided with his. It took a few days to get the time down pat, but he persisted and within a week, they were eating lunch at the same time, if not exactly together. A few weeks of cautious head-nodding and guarded glances passed before Simon felt it was appropriate to sit next to Edith, not any easy task, as the counter, at lunch hour, was quite crowded. As to having a conversation, no less an intimate one, that proved almost impossible, what with the incessant clatter of dishes and silverware, of waitresses calling out orders, of dirty dishes being tossed helter-skelter into collection bins, not to mention the dozens of conversations and greetings, all taking place at the same time.
Edith didn’t cry at the lunch counter anymore. Simon made up his mind not to pry, didn’t want to know why she cried on the day they first met. That way, he felt better about not mentioning Margrete. One evening, as he lay in bed, it occurred to him that since he’d met Edith, there were actually brief snippets of time when he forgot about Margrete, as though she were a coat or a shirt hanging in his closet that he didn’t wear anymore.
Mostly he and Edith talked about work. She worked in real estate and liked to tell him about the idiosyncrasies of her clients, how there was always some little thing—the color of the kitchen cabinets, the size of the bathroom, or the shape of the shower head—that they didn’t like in the apartments she showed them. Simon got the impression that Edith was successful. A good storyteller, she made him laugh. Before meeting him, she’d had no idea how many things could go wrong with people’s dentures and mouths, and enjoyed hearing about the prostheses he fashioned. After a few months of lunches, there were visits to museums, evenings at the theater, and even a trip to the zoo. Simon felt certain that he would have a better life, a fuller, more exciting life with her, an American, than with Margrete. Financially independent, Edith would not be a burden.
But he wavered. Could he really pretend Margrete didn’t exist, just shut her out of his mind? One afternoon, passing St. Andrew’s, a Catholic church quite near the dental lab, Simon noticed the church door was propped open. He would go in and find the priest. Who better to discuss his quandary with?
The inside of the church was cool, musty, dimly lit. To the left of the entrance, a woman silently made her way out of the confessional booth and nodded briefly. Simon walked over and peeked into the confessional.
“Well, what are you waiting for?” A man’s voice sounded strange, as if it were coming through a radio. Simon looked around. “If you’re waiting for Father Bob,” the voice continued, “he won’t be here today.”
“Father?” Simon asked, looking around, uncertain about the source of the voice. He moved further into the confessional and waited. An arthritic, old priest who was having a problem keeping his balance (was he tipsy or just old and fragile, Simon wondered), peeked into Simon’s confined space and said, “Speak up, man. I’ve got hearing aids!” He pointed toward a fist-sized black object on the wall. “Speak into the microphone,” he said, pressing his palms together as if he were crushing something.
Simon leaned toward the microphone. He whispered, “My wife is in Hungary. I’m trying to decide whether or not to bring her to America.”
“I can barely hear you. You say your wife is hungry? Our soup kitchen is open for lunch on Saturdays and Sundays. For a small contribution, you can bring her here. Have you tried the Salvation Army?”
“No, no, no, you misunderstand. I’m Hungarian. I don’t even know if she’s alive. I want to marry another woman. What can I do?”
“I’m confused,” the priest screeched. “You say your wife wants to marry another woman?”
Before standing, Simon squeezed the neck of the microphone, a little choking motion, then quietly backed out of the confessional and left the church. Out on the church steps, he covered his eyes with the palms of his hands. He felt somewhat relieved. His attempt at confessing was unsuccessful, but at least he’d tried. Could it be that his encounter with the priest was some kind of mystical message from God? An omen? A blessing, confirming Simon’s decision to buy Edith an engagement ring with the money he’d saved for Margrete’s ticket? He suspected that it was.
Until she had become ill, Edith had been an ideal wife, a helpmate, always putting Simon’s needs and wants first. Now and then he affectionately accused her of babying him, and then in the next breath, saying, “Don’t stop.” They’d visited libraries and bookstores, hunting through cookbooks for genuine Hungarian recipes to augment those Simon remembered from his youth. She laid out his clothes each morning, made his appointments at the barber shop, surprised him with little gifts from Brookes Brothers—mohair socks at 20 dollars a pair, silk bow ties. Edith never discovered the second letter from Margrete, the letter stating she was ready and anxious to migrate, because Edith considered it a point of respect and trust never to go through Simon’s wallet.
It was impossible to reach the cafeteria’s cash register at the same time as the young nurse. There was the matter of his trash: The milk carton, the napkin, and placemat in one bin, the utensils in another; the time it took to properly place the tray on the slender rubber railings that ferried his used dishes and utensils back to the kitchen. Once, making a great effort to speed things up, Simon’s dish and coffee cup slid onto the floor. He was mortified when a young female cafeteria worker rushed over to sponge coffee off his trousers.
In the evenings, after a simple supper of cornflakes and skim milk, Simon remained at his kitchen table, inventing scenarios in which he easily worms his way into the heart of the young nurse. He would begin by asking about her sketchbook while sounding as Hungarian as he could. If her work is mediocre, he decided that he wouldn’t let on. At first they would just be friends, fellow artists. They would talk about perspective, oils versus acrylics, a variety of subject matter, the quality of certain canvases, and who knows where that could lead? He would go slowly.
When Simon roused himself from his nightly flights of fancy, he was always surprised at how much time had passed, at how his daydreams had become the happiest part of his day. Later, standing at the kitchen sink rinsing his cereal bowl, scraping out the curled hulls of leftover cornflakes, he admitted to himself that his fantasy was far-fetched, nothing more than juvenile, high school, boy-stuff, but somehow, playing it over and over in his mind, it had begun to feel real, to feel right. As for Edith, well, she’d been ill for such a long time, he’d miss her, but he wouldn’t miss taking care of her. He was quite sure that he’d already done his grieving.
Simon lost track of the days. Seated in a chair next to Edith’s hospital bed, he spent hours hypnotized by the sluggish rhythm of her shallow breathing. Wanting to get on with life, he felt trapped as if he were in an elevator stuck between floors. One morning, he inquired about Edith’s condition. “Will my wife ever get better? Will she die soon?” He tried not to sound as impatient as he felt.
The visiting intern shook his head. “It’s only a matter of time,” he said, “unless some miracle occurs. By the way, do you have a cell phone?”
“Well, you don’t have to spend your days here. If you leave a number, we can phone you if there’s any change, either way. I realize you’re devoted, but this isn’t good for your mental health, spending all day here, every day.”
Was that permission? Permission to pursue his fantasy? He would have preferred to pursue it as a widower, which, in Simon’s eyes, was a far more sympathetic character—a far more available character—than a man waiting for his wife to die. He rubbed his hands over his knees, stretched, cracked his knuckles, stared out the window .
When the intern left, Simon stood, walked over to Edith’s bed, looked down at her, and whispered hoarsely, “Edith, the least you could have done before going away forever and ever was to show me where you stored my mother’s recipes, the ones I translated for you. You kept promising to make them into a nice little book for me, Edith, but you never did, did you? I’ve looked everywhere!” Simon stared at Edith’s passive face, his eyes tracing wrinkles he never noticed before. “What else have I got to remind me of my roots, Edith? Oxtail Ragout! Blini! My mother’s blini! The recipes are irreplaceable; they’re my legacy!”
Slapping his clenched hands against his sides, he turned to see if they were still alone in the room. His voice grew louder. “Oxtails, Edith. Oxtails! You loved them, too. The chewy, gristly meat, the brandy-soaked ham slice, the heavenly broth. You thought I was crazy when I first asked you to cook me oxtails. You said oxtails sounded like a dirty word. But you came to love them as I do. And now, Edith, the recipes—zip, gone! Zip!”
Simon sunk to the floor, rested on his knees, and leaned against the bed. “Forgive me, Edith,” he said, breathing in deeply, “forgive me.” He pressed his lips together, fighting tears. “I’m just so hurt at being left behind, left alone, Edith. You know how I hate being alone.” He reached up and placed a finger on Edith’s chin, then stood and left the room. Hopefully, when he returned the next day, her bed would be empty.
The day after he accused the comatose Edith of mishandling his mother’s recipes, he arrived at the hospital later than usual, closer to lunch hour. It was a Friday and the cafeteria was awash with people. It took a moment before he spotted the nurse, alone, at a small table adjacent to a narrow bay of windows. From this distance, he wasn’t absolutely positive she had her sketchbook (his temporary talisman) with her. He chose a sandwich, a simple lunch, nothing that might dribble from a spoon or spill on his shirt. At the cashier station, there was a moment of panic when he thought someone else might take a seat at her table, and he decided not to wait for his change.
“Excuse me, do you mind if I share your table? It’s so crowded today.”
The nurse looked up, half-smiled, and said, “Help yourself. It’s a free country.”
Simon fiddled with his utensils and had an unusually difficult time removing the paper covering from his straw. He glanced at the nurse and laughed. “Why does everything have to be so complicated?”
“That’s the price we pay for modern technology, I guess,” she said, moving her sketchbook closer to her side of the table.
Simon stared at her badge. With the glare from the windows, all he could make out was her first name, Ruth.
Pointing at the sketchbook, he said, “Does that sketchbook mean you’re a budding artist?” Like a shy student in a public-speaking class, his prepared speech about perspective, shading, and different artistic mediums evaporated in mid-air. “So how come I’m so lucky as to find a table with a beautiful girl?” he blurted out, leaning forward, surprising even himself with the brazenness of his question.
“This must be my day for compliments,” Ruth said, as she slid back further in her chair.
“Yes, why just this morning my four-year-old said, ‘Mommy you are the most beautiful Mommy in the whole world."
Simon offered up a small smile, not a smile wide enough to show his perfectly crowned teeth.
Ruth stood, gathered her trash, and wedged her sketchbook under her arm. “Enjoy your lunch,” she said as she turned and walked away.
Simon sat back in his chair, his mouth open, as if to speak. He watched Ruth exit through the maze of tables. What was wrong with him? Why had he wasted all those evenings dreaming about spending time with this particular nurse, someone he didn’t even know? He’d only taken one or two small bites of his sandwich, yet he felt overly full, as if he’d already eaten a generous lunch. Were the diners nearby watching him? Had they noticed that Ruth rushed off almost as soon as he sat down? The noise, the deafening noise of dozens of people speaking at once, dishes clattering, chairs scraping. Simon covered his ears, felt the impulse to run. He gripped the seat of the chair tightly, as if it were some kind of life raft and he might drown if he let go.
Minutes later, Simon pushed his tray away and dug his wallet out of his back pocket. In order to read Margrete’s second letter, he had to lay the worn pieces on the table and fit them together as if they were parts of a puzzle. Was Margrete dead? Had she remarried? Was it too late?
At age 45, grade-school teacher and restaurateur Sandy Robinson enrolled as a Special Student at Yale, taking a cluster of writing courses. She continued her writing education at Wesleyan University in Middletown, CT. Her column, Sandy's Kitchen, a blend of nostalgia and recipes, appeared in the Meriden Record Journal bi-weekly for three years. Her years as an oral historian at a local assisted living center were a great learning experience. She shares her home with 25 rescued cats and her mate, Ken Hallee.
Photo "Tension" courtesy of Nathan Grey.
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