Sunday, June 1, 2008

Out of Sight

Anna came for two weeks in a row. She was a fine looking woman, a few years older than me, too tense and hunched to be pretty, but still fetching. She had thick black hair pinned up in a bun, and wide brown eyes and dark reddened lips, and above all the alert, staring look of a Greek statue come to life. In fact she was of Greek Orthodox background. In those days I still asked newcomers the ‘what made you decide to think about this’ question, because it seemed so cold not to ask. After all, there they were. Now I no longer ask, reasoning that it is not my business and that if they are the type to stay, they’ll stay, and eventually I’ll find out.

But I asked her, and that is how I learned. She fished about in her purse, seeming to lose track of what we were talking about. I thought perhaps I had embarrassed her. But she found what she was looking for and then raised her head and met my eye, as bright and confident as ever. "I have to take some pills," she said. "Is there a kitchen, or someplace I could get a big glass of water?"

"Sure," I said, and she settled her big black purse over her shoulder and we got up from the table where we had been eating sweets and drinking coffee after the service. I took her to the huge kitchen, and she got a glass of water, all the time happily talking.
"I had a liver transplant," she explained. "Two of them."
"My God."
"No, it’s okay." She poured a handful of pills from a plastic bottle into her hand and then counted them silently. I think I saw at least ten, all of different sizes and colors. Some of them were as big as the giant orange and yellow tetracycline capsules I used to take for acne when I was a teenager. It used to take me dozens of gulps of water to get them down, one at a time, and before I was done, I’d be in tears.

Anna gave her pills one final count and then threw them all in her mouth and knocked them back with one swallow. "Those are mostly for rejection," she gasped, the echo of water still her throat. Then she went companionably on.

"I was raised Greek Orthodox, but I haven’t been to church in nine months. Too busy with all this stuff, partly," and she smiled and waved the empty pill bottle before putting it back into her purse. We walked back out into the cavernous, yellow-lit social hall, with its sprinkling of people chatting about the perimeter.

"It started out with me just really liking this idea of ‘finding the sacred in the everyday,’" she went on. "I think that’s so meaningful – "
"Especially after what you’ve been through," I put in.

"You’re not kidding. Although with that, I had help. My doctor has just been great. I can’t say enough about him. We’ve really become friends. After my first surgery, he called me every day, just to see how I was, and said I could call him, and I did – whenever, if I had a problem, or if I just wanted to talk. And then after my second surgery, it was the same. For months. He’s only just stopped calling me in the last couple weeks, actually, and I still call him. I can visit him anytime I want, he said don’t worry about an appointment, just come in. He’s been great. I try to do little things for him, you know?"

"Little things?"

We sat down again at our table. "Oh, I’ve brought him books, and boxes of Jaffa oranges, and I’ve given him bottles of kosher wine for holidays. And then I got him those certificates, you know, about buying trees in Israel?"
"Oh, yeah. That’s such a nice program."
"It’s beautiful. And it’s the sacred in the everyday, you know? And I love how Judaism doesn’t believe that if you’re different, you’re going to hell. I never could deal with that. I mean, how dare anyone say such a thing?"
"It doesn’t seem to make much sense," I answered. "That’s an awful lot of people in hell."
"Exactly." She took a sip of her cold coffee, and then grimaced. "Of course, I’m having a hard time explaining that to my father."
"Oh, dear. Is he – concerned?"
"Oh, yeah. This is right up there with liver failure, as far as he’s concerned. I told him the story about all the souls standing at Sinai and hearing revelation, and about how I must have been there. But I don’t think he bought it."

We sat quietly for a minute, and then a kind old gentleman came up to our table to make conversation. We chatted with him awhile, and then with his wife; then Anna and I exchanged addresses and phone numbers, and shortly afterward, she went home, and so did I.

The next week she came back, and we sat together during prayers and then again during the oneg shabbat. "Oneg, it means joy, right?" she asked, and I said, "Yes." She was dressed exactly the same way she had been the previous week: black hair in a perfect, pinned bun – a style you don’t see much – dark, dressy suit, white blouse, black chunky shoes. I noticed again the pleasant raspiness of her voice, which I had attributed to a cold. Now it made me think of the tubes put down the patient’s throat during surgery. Or maybe she was just born with it.

And then, in the third week, she didn’t come back. I think I can guess what happened.
She went too far with her doctor. He chastised her – gently, ever so decently, perhaps after some really exorbitant gift, leaning against his desk with his arms folded and waiting to speak until his receptionist softly closed the door on the two of them. Or perhaps it was the next day after another late-night phone call, and that blazing look in his wife’s eye as she handed him the phone across the bed. Or perhaps he merely said something completely sympathetic and completely devastating: "Whatever you choose to do, do it because you need to, not because of me." Or, even worse: "I’d like to set you up with another, very excellent practice. It’s much closer to your house and they’re not nearly as close to early retirement as I am."

The mask of eager adoration on her face would dissolve, terribly, and in the blink of his eye, her coat would swing before him, and the door would laze back on its hinges. And she would be gone.

I never saw her again. If she is present among all the souls at Sinai, receiving revelation that day amid the heat and the rocks and the blaring trumpets – while no ox lows and the sea does not roar – this must be just the point when she shimmers, curiously, out of sight.

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