Tsivia was the girl all the boys wanted to tease, then wanted to marry, then could never find the courage to talk to. Entering adulthood, at fourteen and fifteen and sixteen, she went from being a neighborhood sort-of-friend to being a distant and unreachable figure. He couldn’t have a casual conversation with her any more than he could with an oil painting in a museum. Somewhere along the line, things got awkward; not an event but an acknowledgement of being, simply the way things were.
Later, he settled into a niche in Crown Heights, among the kids who weren’t quite OTD, weren’t off the derech, but weren’t really on any derech at all. They would never break Shabbos but they never did much about it, hung out at Elkanah’s parents’ house, drinking, eating, reading magazines. When Tsivia started coming he felt embarrassment at being discovered, then revulsion at her revealed imperfection, then finally a strangely comfortable comradeship.
She is staring at him. She is expecting him to respond.
“What are you doing here?” she is saying. “I heard you’d left town.”
“I could never,” he says. “Not with you still here.”
He doesn’t know what makes him say that. He’s never been like that before, not in his life — it’s such an Elkanah thing to say. His cockiness astounds both of them.
She cocks her head to one side and blinks loudly, and he doesn’t know what to say after that. “So, um,” he fumbles, “what are you doing tonight?”
Thinking suddenly that, perhaps, he can meet up with her after the store closes. A coffee, or just a long talk. Tsivia always felt real to him, intelligent in a way that most people didn’t understand her and would never know, in a way that maybe he could. She was always intimidating, just the idea of her. But when was the next time her would see her? When would he see anyone who knew her? At once tonight felt fresh and humming and alive. He shouldn’t have agreed to work tonight. Tonight, anything could happen.
“I’m going to Elki’s engagement party,” said Tsivia. “I thought you would’ve gotten the message. Weren’t you two friends?”
And with those words the world shatters, and he is found guilty of the crime of casually flirting with Tsivia, and the Talmudic dictum of middah keneged middah, every action provokes a similar action, comes hurling back at him, and he knows that no matter how far he travels, no matter how many baseball caps he tries to use to cover his yarmulke, he will never, ever leave Crown Heights behind.
“Oh, I couldn’t,” he says. “I told my father I’d work tonight.”
“Well, you should come by later. It’s right down the street, at Kol Gavriel, I’m sure she’d love to see you,” she says, giving him a smile, that dreaded and horrific good-luck smile that every girl knows how to give and no boy knows how to take, the kind that kills conversations dead in the water, the kind that lets him know that, no, I am not interested in you, I entertain no notion of you in my future, and nor will I ever be.
And she buys a 50-cent pack of chips, of Golden Fluff tortilla strips, a brand whose name has always puzzled him (no gold? no fluff?) but whose taste is undeniably solid, that perfect balance of spicy and tangy and sweet, that he once read the Japanese call umami, a harmony of flavor, the perfect culinary addiction of which he was the purveyor. He loved the boldness of Tsivia Singer’s pre-party indulgence, and the vision of her walking down the street with the umami tang on her breath, neither of which he would ever taste.
Not that it matters. Elki! Engaged! Which will lead to her being married, which means there is someone in the world who is going to be her husband, and that person is not Zvi.
It is possible, while praying, to have perfect concentration on the prayer and simultaneously be planning out a strategy for lunch time freeze tag. This was an impossibility according to the school rabbis, but Zvi knew it could be done; he did it every day. This was how he knew that it was also feasible to have a crush on Tsivia Singer and at the same time to be in absolute love with Elki. His best friend from childhood, since the time when it was still acceptable for boys and girls to be friends. They fought, they yelled, they disapproved of each other’s life paths and career decisions (him about her) and lack of career decisions (her about him), they went through periods of not talking and periods of talking obsessively, but always through it there was the mutual assumption that they would somehow wind up together. In fact, it was shortly after their last fight that he decided to go to Iowa. She probably doesn’t even know he’s leaving.
He thinks of the life he could have made with Elki. He thinks of the life he could have had with Tsivia, and what kind of person would he have become, how it changes you being the kind of guy who’s married to the tall, skinny girl in tight clothes and the long wig who everyone in the room’s staring at all the time.
He thinks of his future the way it’s headed, and how he’s going to wind up with anyone at all living in Iowa, and yes he wants to run away from Crown Heights, but that isn’t how it works, you can’t just meet a Hasidic girl in a Midwestern cornfield, and he’s thought a million times about how he’s going to deal with finding kosher food (supermarkets, lots of fruit, he just won’t eat in restaurants) and doing Shabbos (he will sleep, just sleep a whole lot) and his eventual return to Crown Heights (not until he’s rich, crazy rich, from doing he’s not exactly sure what yet but it will happen, it needs to) but for the question of girls, he has no idea, he can imagine no solution, he has not measured this into his plan at all and he can think of no solution.
He should abandon it all. He should jump ship. He’s about to sound the alarm bell, and then he hears an actual bell, and it’s someone coming into the store, and his mind is already racing but it positively leaps into hyperspeed when he says “Good evening, welcome to Noshland” and realizes he’s saying it to Elki.
She doesn’t look bad. She’s in what he can only assume are her engagement party clothes, a black pencil skirt and matching jacket, a pearl button-down shirt and matching necklace. She looks Hasidic. Properly Hasidic, officially Hasidic. She looks elegant and crisp, a far cry from those hazy weeknights in plaid pajamas on his parents’ basement couch watching movie after movie, covered in bright orange cheese-curl crumbs and laughing over stupid, stupid things.
“Hey there,” she says.
“I was hoping you’d come.”
“You didn’t invite me.”
“Elkanah didn’t tell you? He knows everything.”
“That doesn’t mean he tells me everything. You look so legit.”
“It’s weird, right? I think I have imposter syndrome. I feel like I’m faking. I feel like I’m going to feel that way for the rest of my life.”
The things she says, the way she says it, all of this makes him feel comfortable in a way he almost never is. He remembers their first times together, when talking was the biggest scandal they could commit, when Elki was suddenly no longer a familiar playfriend but an alien creature, with a whole different biology and a whole different set of rules.
“Or else this is the part you’re faking,” he offers kindly. He rips open a packet of pizza-flavored Bissli, takes a fingerful and passes it to her. Her clothes for the occasion are expensive and white — bought by her almost-in-laws, maybe. From here on, she’s going to be taken care of. No more crumbling rowhouse Brooklyn girl. Maybe she’ll get pizza-red crumbs all over her and her new guy will ask where she was and the truth will come out and they’ll call it all off, right at the engagement party. G-d, he prays, what do you think of that idea?
“That’s true,” she says, mouth full of crumbs, sucking spices neatly off the tips of her fingers. Damn. “I am glad I stopped here,” she says. “It would’ve felt weird not to see you.”
“Is that the reason you came by?”
“Actually, the reason’s Elkanah. He said he left something here for me?”
“It’s a package. Did he?”
Until now she has been swaggery, detached, a sort of cool like she’s the center of the party — or like she’s just left her own party and there’s a crowd of people waiting to welcome her back. He’s never felt this way with her before, like he should be privileged to be in her presence.
Once she mentions the package, though, that cool is gone. It’s sudden, and it’s radical. It suddenly feels like he doesn’t know her at all.
He reaches under the counter and pulls out the marshmallow bag. The corner still torn, not (he hopes) noticeably so, nothing leaking out yet. Its exterior still plump and rainbow-colored, its insides still obscured.
“Here it is,” he announces, managing to sound neither nervous nor conspicuous. Totally ignorant, totally just Elkanah’s best friend. “Your engagement marshmallows. Ha! Great idea for a gift.”
“Um, yeah,” she stows it immediately inside her purse, a muted black affair that matches her conservative suit winningly. It disappears. She looks at him. For the barest sliver of a moment her eyes shimmer, and it’s her, really her, the her he hasn’t den since they were sixteen and hiding in the storeroom downstairs, cutting each of their respective yeshivas to drink raw vodka and eat sour strings together, back when they could trust each other with all their secrets because none of their secrets had consequences. “You looked,” she says, not an accusation but a fact.
“I looked,” he says.
“He’s not rich,” she says. “I know we promised, we’d marry each other or we’d marry rich. But he’s a good person. He is, weirdly, under the impression that I’m a good person, too, no matter how much I try to convince him of the opposite. He deserves the world, Zvi. I’m going to try to give it to him.”
“By buying from Elkanah? What’s that, the world’s most demented wedding present?”
“More like a loan. Next week my parents and I are going to Palm Springs. A relief from the wedding planning. All I have to do is bring it with me and give it to someone.”
“I’m leaving tomorrow. I’m moving to Iowa, I’m going to go to college.”
“I know. I heard. Everyone’s talking about it. It’s so great, Zvi. You’re finally going to be out of this place. You’ll be able to do anything.”
“You’ll be able to do anything. You have a guy — a guy who, I guess, loves you and stuff — ”
“I’m sorry. Am I being a jerk?”
“Only slightly. Just trust me on this one, okay? Mendel is a truly nice guy, and he cares about me a lot. And I — I need to be doing something with my life, okay? You’re smart. You can take your brain and make a whole new life with it.”
He knows this is supposed to be a compliment but it feels like an insult. “You could, too,” he accuses. “If you really wanted to.”
“Then maybe I don’t want to,” she says. “Maybe I’m okay with being here. We can’t all create our own worlds. Some of us have to make do with what we’ve got.” She picks the package off the counter, making sure to hoist it hole-up. “Thanks for this, Zvi. I’ll be hoping for the best of everything for you.”
He feels the urge to do something now, something drastic. To promise her something, or to make her an offer — drive away with me, come in my car tonight, I’ll lock up the shop right now, we’ll start going and we’ll never stop. But he doesn’t do anything, and she isn’t waiting for him to, and before he can think better of it she is gone.
The minute the door slams shut he is shaking. Every word they spoke is in his mind at once, the tones of voice, the breathless breaths and licks of lips between words. He can remember everything. This was how it was when they first met, the wild unexpectedness that their friendship could exist coupled with an unfamiliar pride: A girl is talking to me. He hasn’t felt that way about anything since he was fourteen years old. That, he realizes, is how long it’s been since he’s had an adventure.
It’s time to shut down. The store has held on as long as it could, plucked from the night every conceivable customer. The children are in bed, the chocoholics have outlasted their caffeine charge and the drunkards and partygoers, drunk. post-partied, have long quenched whatever munchies might have struck. He’s added and attacked the total sales, closed out the register and the credit card machine and locked all the electronics in the safe. All the while he’s tried to ignore the persistent throbbing void that’s beating inside him in place of a heart, filling the parts of his brain too grand and vast to content itself with mere math.
He closes the lights, pulls the door all the way, fiddles with the lock that’s been giving them trouble since they bought the place. He unclips the key so he’ll remember to leave it for his father, and slips it in his pocket, where it flops around the bottom like a dead fish.
Outside the air feels like a vacation, warm and wet. Most of the lights in the shops have gone off. The street gives the empty ring of being backstage after a school play. Standing in front of the bodega, chewing on a toothpick and looking like a site-specific installation, like he’s been there as long as Crown Heights itself, is Elkanah.
“Elki’s getting married?” for some reason is the only thing he can think to say. “Why the hell didn’t you tell me, Elkanah?”
“I did tell you, Zivvy. Easiest way I could. They only announced it today — they were so religious about it, they didn’t tell anyone until it was official. Can you believe it? Elki, acting like a real Hasid?”
“Before she showed up at my door, I mean!”
“What would you have done? If you known?”
This question freezes him.
“Tried to talk to her? Thrown yourself at her? Made it work once more when it’s never worked in all the years you’ve known each other?”
This is the way Elkanah is, the way he’s always been. He’s only trying to help, but he helps by showing you how useless you are and the utter pointlessness of it all.
“I love you, Zivzag, but this is why I didn’t warn you about Elki. You like wading in the water, but you’ll never dive in for real. You’re just like the rest of us, just a little more scared. You’re just looking as a way to go OTD without anyone watching. In a month you’re gonna forget about this whole college thing, you’ll be right back in Crown Heights playing fast and loose with the rest of us.”
The punch comes before Zvi knows it’s being thrown, and it’s only by the sudden pain in his knuckles that he can tell who’s thrown it.
Elkanah staggers back, more surprised than hurt.
“You’re wrong,” Zvi tells him. “I’m not going OTD. I’m just going to Iowa.”
He leaves him there, on the street, knocked up but not too bloody. It’ll be alright. Somebody will fix him up. After all, Elkanah knows everyone.
Noshland won’t last forever. There’s this new store closer to 770, Sweet Sensations, with higher-priced premium candy, nicer displays, a taller ceiling. Already it’s eating into Noshland’s profits, and the only way they survive is the way they’ve always survived — by opening early, staying open late, selling the sour candy and the savory treats, the Japanese-import chocolate milk straws, the weird foods that no one likes, except maybe somebody.
Zvi will return home. Just to visit, never for too long, long enough to satiate his parents and find out what’s happened to everyone. At some point Noshland will close, and his mother will say it was long overdue, and his father will think We could have lasted one more year, just one more year. And what means by that is, one more generation, that maybe it could have become Zvi’s business, his life. Instead Zvi will by then have his own life: a job (not great, but enough), a wife (a woman he had never expected he would marry, but did), a host of thoughts and things to fill his nights. Before he walks home from Noshland that night, he stares at himself in the front window, half-transparent, his body filled with bags of pretzels and sweets, but it isn’t the reflection of the store he’s looking at. It’s himself — a different self, a mirror image but also a distortion, a flash of something else, maybe the way he’ll look in the future, or maybe it is his other present. If he’d gone out tonight instead of staying in, if instead of punching Elkanah, Elkanah’d punched him, if he’d decided to stay instead of go, if he calls Tsivia, if her calls Elki.
But he can’t really see any of this, just the one person who actually is him, and none of these other choices mean anything, the ones he doesn’t take, and none of this is real, anyway, especially not Noshland. He turns away from the window, not looking back, and forgets whether he remembered to close the lights in the display until he is halfway to Iowa.