I think of the children who will never know, intuitively, that a flower is a plant’s way of making love, or what silence sounds like, or that trees breathe out what we breathe in.
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“But Rabbi,” Anna said, “I know I saw him. He’s been peeking in the living-room window at me. He’s tall, and not at all well behaved. I thought angels were supposed to have halos around them.”
“Maybe this is a peeping man,” the rabbi said. In the darkness of his study, his hands had the tallowy shade of figures in a wax museum.
Anna rose, feeling the tug of arthritis that kept her from dancing around her living room in the dusky, sweet evening. “But he was standing right in my marigolds. And he didn’t leave any footprints.”
The rabbi nodded and leaned back in his chair.
In this very room, exactly seven years ago, Anna had risen from her chair and walked over to him. Like a teenage one, she’d sat on his lap and kissed him. The angel had been inside her then, prodding her, poking her in the belly, in the breasts, even as she thought, No, I’m married, it’s unseemly. The angel had pushed her onto the rabbi’s lap and pressed their lips together. She’d felt the secret slash of tongue against tongue, the accidental clash of teeth, the hand that raced to her breast and exploded her nipple, then raced away. Just as suddenly, she had gotten up, straightened her dress, sat back down in her chair, and resumed talking about the problem she had brought to the rabbi: her husband, Isaac, no longer cared about her.
“Really, Anna, an angel is just a part of yourself.” The rabbi’s voice was still thick with Russian, each word a tangled forest.
Anna liked the way the flesh hung around his jowls, the corrugated look of his hands. His eyes were dim with cataracts, and so long as she pointed her voice at him, she could glance around while she talked, looking at the rows of Hebrew books in his bookcase, the stack of unopened mail on his desk. Letters from his daughter who had married a Baptist? Anna wondered.
“Rabbi, how can he be part of myself when I see him, a man like a Hasid, only with a bald, onion head, zipping behind trees, peeking into my window? Once I found him sitting on my toilet — dressed of course. He is not a solid man. The light shines through him and he walks above the ground and he has no shoes and his feet are blurs of light.”
Like something fragile unfolding, the rabbi stood and steadied himself against the arms of his chair.
“I have studied angels,” he said. “I know from the Bible that God uses them to show us parts of ourselves, to point out the responsibilities each of us has. Ask yourself what this angel has to show you, Anna.”
The rabbi walked to the bookshelf and Anna saw how the furniture was positioned to serve him with support: from the chair to the table, two steps; then along the table edge to the bookcase; the bookcase to the wingback chair, five steps; next, the door handle; and outside in the hall, a small table, perfect for steadying his uneasy body.
“I was hoping the angel would come here with me,” Anna said, following the rabbi to the bookshelf. “Then you could have a look at him.”
The rabbi smiled as if she were a dear child who still believed in fairies. Did he remember her lips? she wondered. They had never discussed the kiss. It settled into the past like a sleeping cat into a pillow. And yet she had felt his desire, so much stronger than her husband’s. And now that Isaac had passed on, what if she reached out to the rabbi again, only gentler this time? She knew other widow ladies brought the rabbi special packets of loose black tea and macaroons. Had any of the members of the Senior Division of the Temple Sisterhood ever kissed him?
“I brought some soup for you,” she told him as she put on her coat. “It’s on the stove.”
Once a month, as she had for years, she brought him food and sat across from him in his study and talked about whatever was on her mind. Like a talk show. She imagined Oprah coming to tape the old lady and the rabbi talking angels. What did Oprah think of angels? Anna wondered. Maybe everyone had them. Maybe angels were one of those closely guarded secrets, like alcoholic parents, dirty underwear, and grown children on drugs.
As Anna walked home, two boys on bicycles whizzed by her. A long, lean girl, blond hair flying, tanned skin taut beneath a lime green halter top, roller-bladed by, her body drinking up the sidewalk. Anna moved her hips from side to side, as if she, too, were skating. She knew what she looked like: a senile old woman. Only her angel knew how she felt inside: lively, dancing, ready for adventure.
Even though Isaac had been gone for three years, the house still smelled of his Ben-Gay, his Mogen David wine, his stacks of old newspapers. Each time Anna walked into her living room, she thought of him. In her bedroom, Isaac’s closet was clean and freshly painted, waiting for someone to hang up shirts, ties, and suits, as though Anna might start again with a new man. But nothing could erase the permanent dent on Isaac’s side of the bed.
In his last years, Isaac had taken to hoarding things, burying pieces of candy under newspapers, hiding crusts of sandwiches in the folds of his chair. His voice had turned wily and too smooth, as if he was again a survivor, trapped in the concentration camp, and Anna was the enemy, his captor. Occasionally a smile would melt his suspicion and he would reach out, hold Anna’s hand, softly speak her name — and this saved her.
Anna turned the radio to jazz and went into the kitchen to make Friday-night blintzes. She wondered if her angel would ever appear in front of people. In the Bible angels spoke. But so far her angel was silent.
Anna was working her hands through the cottage-cheese mixture when the doorbell rang. Sheldon, her neighbor, stood at the door.
“I was lonely,” Sheldon said. He was in his fifties and newly retired, part of a downsizing or right-sizing or whatever they called losing your job these days. He dropped in often. Anna liked the comfortable cynicism he brought.
“Come in,” Anna said. She wiped her hands on her apron and brewed decaf. She remembered how it had felt to be newly separated from work, that sort of diaphanous, wrenching feeling, a mixture of swelling excitement and narrowing fear, the long day fat in front of her and not a mark on its languorous hide.
For a while Sheldon sat silently. Isaac used to call him deceptive: “You look at him, you listen to him, and still, you know nothing.”
Anna liked the mystery in Sheldon’s face.
“I’ve been hearing voices,” Sheldon said. In his royal blue warm-up suit, he looked as if he had gone to Sears and asked, What do retired people wear?
Anna felt a surge of interest. “What do they say?”
“A man’s voice says, ‘Are you in charge of things, or are they?’ ”
“I guess I should be glad my angel is silent,” Anna said.
“You mean Isaac?”
“No, I mean the angel who keeps popping up around here.” Anna twisted her fingers together. She knew Sheldon was thinking that she was getting old.
“So what do you do when you hear the voices?” Anna asked, to stir up the silence. She put both hands around her coffee cup. She hoped Sheldon wouldn’t notice her tremble and assume she was dotty. She’d had this tremble forever, even as a girl. But since her first boyfriend had fallen in love with her over it, she had never minded the occasional splats of spaghetti sauce or splashes of soup.
“If no one’s around, I shout, ‘Go away. Leave me alone,’ ” Sheldon said. “But I wonder if I’m doing the right thing. Would your friend the rabbi talk to me about it?”
“Yes,” Anna said. “But I warn you, he’s a rational man.”
She finished her coffee and went back to the counter. She spread the cottage cheese on the dough while Sheldon rinsed out his mug.
“I can’t get used to Mavis being gone,” Sheldon said. He leaned against the counter, arms folded, eyes straight ahead.
“Where did she go?” Anna asked. Sheldon’s wife, Mavis, was a loud woman, always dashing places. One week her hair was brilliant red, the next lemony blond.
“She’s down in Florida,” Sheldon said. “She says she’s leaving me, she’s not coming back.” He fumbled at his hips, trying to hide his hands in nonexistent pockets.
Anna turned from folding the dough and saw her angel standing on the stove. “Be careful. It might be hot,” she said, speaking slowly so the angel could understand.
“Sure it’s hot down there,” Sheldon said. “Mavis wears bikinis all over town, even to the grocery store.”
Anna stared at her angel. She had never seen him so close. The fine lines of his face reminded her of spring rain. “What do you want from me?” Anna asked, holding out her hands.
“What if I spent the night with you sometime?” Sheldon said. “Not for sex, you understand, but just to have someone near.” He moved closer, and the angel faded away. “There’s something about you I’ve always admired.”
His breath in her face was like a swallow of warm Passover wine.
“Of course, we would wear pajamas,” he said.
“Of course,” Anna said. She imagined his hand running over her silk nightgown, down the eroded hills of her breasts to the rich mesa of her stomach. Sheldon was the right size to fit spoonwise with her, just the right amount of padding and lean.
Sheldon put his palms on her cheeks and looked into her eyes. A secret wind swept through her. Kissing would be such a dessert, such a bonus. Then the grease on the stove popped.
“I need to finish my cooking,” she said, her heart fast as a new baby’s. “Do you want to sit and eat?”
Anna scooped the blintzes out of the pan and patted them extra dry; men like Sheldon were usually on a low-fat diet.
Sheldon sliced through the blintz with his knife and stuffed a large bite into his mouth. Anna watched his lips while he ate. She imagined the taste of him. She wanted to put her hand on his, but instead went to the sink and ran water into the old frying pan.
Later, when Sheldon stood up to leave, Anna saw the angel hovering right behind him, between him and the door. She wondered what would happen if Sheldon collided with her angel. Would the angel be shattered, smashed, burst into shards of light? Or would Sheldon emerge glowing, shining with a delicious softness?
“Come here,” Anna said. “I’ll wrap the leftover blintzes for you.”
Sheldon tapped his fingers against the counter while Anna fumbled with the plastic wrap. Sheldon’s hand there was like Sodom or Gomorrah, forbidden for her to look at or touch. Yet she had touched so many difficult things in her life: a wounded snake, a bloody child, a dead husband.
Sheldon took the blintzes and walked right through the angel and out the door.
“Where are you?” Anna asked the angel when Sheldon had left. She knelt and felt around on the floor, but there were only the soft remainders of flour, the stickiness of a spilled egg. Her knees creaked when she stood up.
After Anna cleaned the kitchen, she got out the Sabbath candlesticks and two new, white candles, pure as brides. The flames bruised the air as she murmured the Sabbath blessing. Usually she sat and read in front of the candlesticks, looking up from her book and imagining herself part of that dancing fire. But the words in her book seemed dry as unbuttered matzo. A breeze teased the flames into zigzags, coaxing smoke from them.
And then she saw her angel’s legs, dancing on the tips of the flames. He was wearing a rabbi’s robe that swirled around his ankles. The robe looked so real, so black and lustrous, that Anna was sure it would catch fire. She reached out to pull her angel down to safety, but her hand grabbed air and the fire singed her wrist.
She cradled her wrist and watched the angel. He moved like the tops of wind-swept trees, and no matter how deep his robe dipped into the fire, it stayed whole and pure.
Anna’s wrist ached as she dialed the rabbi. He answered on the seventh ring.
“The angel is still here, Rabbi,” Anna said. She struggled to make her voice sound normal. “Sheldon walked right through him.”
“The angel is part of you, Anna.” The rabbi sounded patient and rational.
Anna remembered the rabbi’s long-ago kiss. For him, she could open the dark, lost part of herself.
“I’d like to come over,” she said.
“You would be most welcome,” the rabbi answered.
It was a sin to blow out the Sabbath candles, and she couldn’t leave them untended, so she carried them with her. The night was an unopened envelope. She walked slowly, the candles flickering, the flames slurring the dark.
I must look like a crazy woman, she thought.
The rabbi’s door was unlocked. Had he made his way all through the house to open it for her, she wondered, or did he never lock it?
She walked into the study. The rabbi sat in his chair, and behind him stood her angel.
“I see you’ve met my angel,” Anna said.
“I am preparing to,” the rabbi said. Then he stood, holding out one hand to her, steadying himself with the other.
Anna set the candles on the table. The rabbi’s gentle arms enfolded her, and she felt her angel touching her head, filling her with a silent, jubilant light. With the rabbi’s kiss, the light flowed through her.
The rabbi’s face had the coolness and sorrow of the Kol Nidre, the hymn for the dead, but his mouth held warmth and celebration. Anna sighed and moved her lips slowly against his, as if murmuring a prayer.