Selection 5: Pizza Break // Racheli Lebovics

It’s really amazing that you can spend close to ten hours with someone and not notice how bushy his eyebrows are. Then you hit date number four and it’s boom—why did I never notice this? I move my chair a little closer to the table and feel some of the butterflies in my stomach ease. If bushy eyebrows are a disqualifying factor, then I really have nothing to be nervous about after all. Dov looks up from his menu and smiles at me.

“So? What did you decide? Go ahead, get something fried, I won’t tell anyone.”
I force a laugh. Let him think he’s the first to think of telling such a clever joke to a nutritionist on a date. I may not be any closer to getting married, but I’ve definitely nailed the fake laugh by now. “Hmm, I think I’ll just take the grilled chicken salad. Fried food doesn’t really speak to me anymore.”
It’s been four dates and Dov is definitely one of the nicest guys I’ve been out with. He gets points for paying for parking, holding open all doors, and actually remembering my profession from one date to the next—very impressive stats. So I was actually looking forward to this date. But now, I’m here sitting across from him and I’m not so sure anymore. Looking at him across the table, it occurs to me that his nose is definitely on the larger side. Funny, I didn’t notice it until now. I shake my head a little and try to focus on what he’s saying. Some story about an accounting client of his who missed an email about an audit and got into big trouble. I smile politely and try my best to listen. Something’s not going right here; we were doing so well until now. The waiter comes with our plates and I put some chicken salad carefully into my mouth. Dov cuts into his steak and says, “How was the nursing home today?” He looks at me intently.
“Oh, same old, you know, meal plans, some consultations with the kitchen and new patient reviews.”
For a second, I think about my upsetting patient today, the one whose family was so nasty to all the staff. I know they were stressed about their father’s stroke, but I wish they would have been nicer and not so rude. We were all genuinely trying to help, and they acted like we were out to kill their father or something like that. I open my mouth to share what happened and then snap it shut. What am I doing? Who knows if this will be my last date with this guy? I certainly don’t need to start spilling out my kishkes to him.
I move my salad around on my plate and launch into one of my well-rehearsed, funny nursing home stories. I always keep one up my sleeve for a rainy day, or for a quiet date, I should say.

* * *

The next day is Tuesday, weigh-in day at Slim-Up, where I work once a week. I’m almost ready to go when the text comes through from Daddy. “Hey, honey, give me a call when you get a few minutes.” I squint at it, then shrug and grab my clipboard, passing by the hall mirror of my basement apartment for a quick dash of lip gloss. I’ve kind of gotten over that feeling of always being on display. At 27, what you see is what you get with me, but still, a little lipstick never hurt anyone.
I close the door to my basement apartment and feel the cold Brooklyn air slam me in the face. November brought the cold fast and furious this year. Maybe I’ll stop somewhere for a coffee, no sugar, skim milk of course. Ever since I’ve been running these weight loss groups for the Slim-Up center, I know that everyone is watching my waistline. Not that they weren’t before. But like I said, being a 27-year-old single girl living in New York, I’ve had to develop some pretty thick skin.
While I’m walking towards the weight loss center, I punch in Daddy’s number. It rings a few times and then I hear my Dad’s gravelly tenor come through the line. “Hi, Sweetie, thanks for calling me back.” His voice carries the sweet notes of home, reminding me of the wide set-back lawns of Springview and warm Sundays at our pizza shop.
“No problem, Dad,” I answer. I reach the cafe and swing open the door, the fragrance of espresso enveloping all my senses. Daddy continues. “So, Sweetie, you know my 65th birthday is coming up next month.” I blink and try to focus on the coffee menu. I can’t stand thinking of Daddy aging. I lost my Mom when I was only ten years old and my Dad’s all I have. I guess time stops for no man and all that, but it’s still hard to face. I stopped discussing my shidduchim with him a long time ago. The disappointment was too hard for me to deal with.
“I’ve decided that it’s time for me to close up shop here. Maybe sell the store and move down to Florida, you know, something like that,” he says.
I nearly spit out my latte. “Sell the store?” I splutter. Jack’s Pizza is a Springview icon, one of the few kosher restaurants around and open for the last 30 years. It’s actually the symbol of my childhood, my safe haven as I weathered the storms of adolescence without a mother. Daddy coughs.
“Well, yeah, I know it’s hard to make a change, Sweetheart, but I’m ready to relax a little. I’ve worked hard for a long time. Listen, it’s not happening tomorrow, I just wanted to give you a little heads up.” I look down at my cell phone and notice the time. Argh, I’ll be late for the group at this rate.
“Daddy, we need to talk more about this. I’m late for the weight loss group I’m running tonight, I’ll call you soon, okay?” I hold the hot coffee carefully in my hands as I power walk the three blocks towards Slim-Up. Experience has taught me that the best way to deal with something uncomfortable…is to not deal with it at all. So I open the door of the center, walk in, and put all thoughts of Jack’s Pizza firmly out of my mind.

* * *

Dina has already started when I get there, the semicircle of ladies sitting in folding chairs, and the scale waiting in the middle. I love this part of my job. This small room is my kingdom, the one place where I have something that the other women around me don’t. Every other day of the week, I’m “Shayna the Older Single.” On Tuesdays, though, I’m “Shayna the Slim Nutritionist.” And honestly, it feels great. Aside from that, it’s fun and a good way to meet people. Dina and I became friends when we were in the nutrition program together. She got married and had two kids while I managed to stay single and yet she still hasn’t given up on me, so that counts for a lot.
As we get ready to leave, Dina turns to me. “So. Tell me more about this guy you’re going out with. Must be going well—what date are you up to already?”
I blush a little. “The fifth. Eh, not sure. I mean, he’s definitely a nice guy. I just don’t know if I feel any sparks. You know? He’s pretty run of the mill: accountant, learns before and after work. That family, the Golds on the corner, you know, the one I go to for Shabbos sometimes, they set us up.”
We leave the center and pull our jackets closer around us against the bitter chill.
“Sounds good to me. I’ve told you a hundred times to forget about that chemistry nonsense.” Dina reaches into her handbag and winks at me.
“Oh, I almost forgot! Your highly intellectually stimulating reading material.” I laugh as I grab the magazines away from her.
“Does prince charming know that you secretly devour children’s magazines?” she asks.
“Actually, he does know, it came out at some point in the conversation.”
We continue walking towards her car, laughing, clouds of steam forming from our mouths as we talk. “So, right now you’re not sure what to do? You didn’t get back to the shadchan yet?” she asks.
I nod, my arms huddled against the cold.
Dina is quiet for a beat, then turns to me.
“Listen, you know I love you. Don’t take this the wrong way.”
“Okay?” I say hesitantly. It comes out like a question. I shiver. The cold has become unbearable as it bites and pulls at my cheeks.
“I care too much about you to watch you self-sabotage another shidduch. I think you need some help to try to move this to the next level.”
She starts fiddling with her phone and says, “My cousin told me about this amazing dating coach, I’m going to text you her info, okay? Every time you start to get somewhere with a date, you find things that bother you and you shut down. ” Her words come out in a rush. I’m listening but I feel my jaw tighten and my heart start to race as hot anger runs through my veins.
How dare she! What does she know? Cozily ensconced in a little family, going from two happy loving and living parents to a husband who takes care of her? What does she know about the endless dates or worse, the endless silence of no dates? She couldn’t know how it feels to lose someone you love, to face the turbulent high school years alone without the loving buffer of a mother to come home to every day. Of course it’s harder for me to connect to a date; I’ve been hurt so many times. My mouth is pursed tight; I don’t allow my angry thoughts to crystalize into hurtful words.
Dina continues, oblivious to my emotions. “I really hope you’ll call her. I’m sure she could help you!” We reach her car and she gets in. “I hope I didn’t overstep my bounds. I only say it because I care.”
“I know.” I swallow hard and force my lips upward into a smile.
“I’m freezing, we’ll talk tomorrow, okay?” She closes the door and drives off as I keep walking, the anger dissipating as I get closer to home.
It’s so easy for other people to judge me. But a small niggling feeling inside my chest tells me that maybe there is something to what she’s saying. Dr. Jacobson, the psychologist I used to go to, said that I put up walls since I’m afraid of getting hurt. Losing my mom at such a young age forced me to protect myself. Either way, I’m annoyed at Dina right now.
Back in the blessed warmth of my little apartment, I’m sipping a hot tea when my phone pings. It’s a contact card from Dina. “Rena Klein, Dating Coach,” it says. I roll my eyes. No dating coach can give someone a personality he doesn’t have or tame overly bushy eyebrows. A minute later, another text comes in. It’s Mrs. Gold, the shadchan. I feel a flutter in my stomach as I open the text message.
“Hi, Shayna, I think things are going really well, and it’s time for you guys to communicate directly. When is a good time for him to call you to set up the next date?” I feel my stomach clench and I throw the phone across the room onto the small blue couch in the corner. I force myself to breathe deeply. I can’t do this.
I stand up and go to retrieve my phone, deciding I won’t answer her just yet. Scrolling mindlessly through my text messages as a distraction, I reach Dad’s message from earlier and suddenly, I know exactly what I’ll do. I’m long overdue for a visit back home. I’ll go help Daddy with the store and convince him it needs to stay open, and also get some breathing space from this whole Dov situation. It’s the perfect way to kill two birds with one stone. Like I said, the best way to deal with an unpleasant situation is not to deal with it at all, right?
Before I know it, the tickets are booked. I’ll have to let the nursing home know I won’t be in for the next week or so, and I’ll fire off a quick text to Mrs. Gold about needing to go out of town for a bit. All my problems can wait here in New York. For now, I’m off to Springview.

* * *
Two days later, I’m in my childhood bed. Nothing like being home again. I let myself sleep late, but now I have to get moving. I’m on a mission here, after all. I need to convince Daddy not to give up the store. Jack’s Pizza is a mainstay of kosher eating in Springview. We’re a small, out of the way town with one shul and a small day school, and most of Daddy’s customers are actually non-Jewish. I get dressed and daven and drive over to the store. It’s much warmer here than in New York, and as I drive I notice again how Springview is changing. The surrounding storefronts have turned chic and upscale. The sign on Jack’s Pizza, with its curling font, circa 1995, stands out like a sore thumb. Maybe Daddy’s right that it’s time to sell? I shake my head. Daddy’s too young to retire.
Opening up the door to the store, the rich aroma of baking pizza hits me and a wave of nostalgia washes over me. Ahh, the smell of my childhood. I head towards the back, to the office, and suddenly feel myself being wrapped in a tight hug. I look down and see it’s Sandra, one of the special needs adults that my Dad employs. “Hi, Sandra! Great to see you, too!” The small woman grins at me and puts her dishrag down on the table next to me, scrubbing vigorously. “Shayna! I’m so happy to see you.” From behind the glass display, Lenny at the cash register gives me a wave. “Hello, hello, Miss Shayna.” This brother and sister pair could melt the ice of Antarctica. People think that “special” is a euphemism. But my father taught me that people like this really are special. They always make you feel like a million dollars, just for being you. Dad had a special brother whom his parents had put in an institution, back when that was the accepted thing to do. He hadn’t survived adulthood, and Dad had always made sure that Jack’s employed special needs adults.
Daddy comes ambling out of his office, holding some paperwork.
“Hello, Sweetheart! How’d ya sleep? Have you had breakfast?” He places the stack of papers down and gives me a quick peck on the cheek. “Look at you, skin and bones, with all that grass and who-knows-what you eat!” He tucks the pen he’s holding behind his ear. “Lenny! Bring the young lady some breakfast, will ya? And don’t skimp on the hashbrowns.”
He doesn’t really get the whole nutritionist thing. Actually, my parents never did see eye-to-eye on health-related matters, and it’s ironic that Mom was the one who became sick and passed away. I decide it’s worth the extra calories to make him happy.
“Okay, okay, I’m on vacation. Bring on the breakfast special; it can’t hurt once in a while.” We sit down together in the back booth, where Lenny usually sits folding down cardboard pizza boxes. The steaming fried eggs and hashbrowns are delicious.
“Mmm! Dad, these are so yum, it’s really good I don’t live here or I’d be out of job when people found out how I ate.” Daddy forks some eggs into his mouth and grins at me. “How’s the Big Apple treating you? Met any nice boys lately? When am I gonna get some grandchildren already?” I can feel my face turn red and will it to turn white again.
“Yeah, I’ve been going out with someone, not sure where its gonna go yet.” I looked down at the hashbrowns on my plate. Somehow I’m not hungry anymore. Time to change the subject.
“So anyway, Dad, what’s all this about closing the store? I’m sure we can figure out a way for you to cut back without giving it up?”
Dad shakes his head, grabbing a pizza box to fold as he talks. “Listen, Sweetie, I tried telling you on the phone the other day, it’s a done deal. I already gave up the lease and the owner of the complex sold it to an investor who’s gonna tear the whole place down.”
I swallow. Well then.
Daddy continues. “Hey, maybe you can help me find jobs for Sandra and Lenny, okay?” My heart constricts at the thought of not seeing those two every time I come home. I feel a buzz in my pocket. It’s a text from Mrs. Gold. I step up from the table and walk to the back end of the store to read it.
“Hi, Shayna, hope your trip is going well. I really need to get back to Dov. If you need to speak to me about it, please give me a call, but I can’t leave him hanging.” I feel a sense of panic rising up from my stomach and choking my throat. I give a small cough. What now? I don’t know if I’m ready for this. Bushy eyebrows notwithstanding, he’s a pretty nice guy. But what if I start to let my guard down and we connect and then he doesn’t like the real me? It’s so much easier to keep up a barrier than to let down the walls I’ve built around my heart and risk getting hurt. I just need more time. I tap on my phone and send off a message back: “Hi, so sorry to keep you and him waiting. I just need a bit more time. Can I have two more days??”
She answers me with a two-hands-clasped-together emoji and “Okay, but no more than that… Looking forward to hearing back from you by Friday.”
I breathe a sigh of relief. Saved for the next 48 hours.
* * *
I’m still sad about Jack’s closing, but my most immediate problem is finding jobs for Sandra and Lenny. Daddy had a doctor’s appointment so I’m sitting at his desk, staring at the computer screen like it holds the answers to all my problems. I’ll start with a Google search: “Businesses that employ special needs adults.” I call a local grocery store, a bakery, and a pet shop, but none of the places I call are hiring. The keyboard starts to feel heavy under my fingertips—time for a break. I head on over to the kitchen window to see if I can make myself a salad or some soup. Sandra is busy wiping down the tables and Lenny is next to her, sorting some cutlery. Ugh, I feel so bad for them, I must find them something.
“Hi, guys, how’s it going?” I smile at them and they both smile back.
“So, I know my Dad told you that he’s going to be closing the store. But I don’t want you to worry because I’m going to find you both jobs.”
Sandra looks confused, so I continue, speaking slower this time; maybe she didn’t understand me. “Sandra, honey, I’m going to make sure you have somewhere else to work. I already made some calls for you.”
Sandra shifts from one foot to the other and looks at Lenny. “But, but, Jack says the store’s gotta close. So me and Lenny, we decided to look for other jobs. And we found good jobs, too, Shayna. I’m gonna be waitin’ tables at the bagel store over on Wood Street and Lenny’s gonna bag groceries at Kosher Palace. Is that okay, Shayna?” I stare at this woman, older than me but younger in so many ways. I nod my head, “Yes, yes, it’s fine, it’s great! I’m so happy you two found something. That’s really amazing.”
Something is niggling at me.
“Sandra, wasn’t it hard for you to think about leaving the pizza store? You and Lenny have been here for so many years.” Sandra’s small eyes crinkle into a smile and she laughs.
“Course it’s hard, Shayna, but our Mom, she always taught us, you put one foot in front of the other. You do whatcha know you gotta do and your heart will follow.”
I nod slowly.
“That makes a lot of sense, Sandra. Good for you. I can tell your Mom was a really smart lady.”
I walk towards the front of the pizza store. A delivery truck pulls up outside and drops off two packages. I pass by them on my way out and notice that one is addressed to me. Strange. I look at the return address, but it just says Brooklyn, NY. Who could be sending me a package? I pick it up and tear open the white envelope. Inside are two Jewish children’s magazines from this past week. There is a yellow sticky note stuck on the front of one magazine. I squint to make out the scrawl. It says, “Hi, I figured that you don’t get these magazines in Springview. Hope you have a great Shabbos, Dov.”

* * *
I drive slowly back home, the magazines burning a hole in the passenger seat next to me. Dov is definitely the most thoughtful guy I’ve dated yet. I can’t believe he remembered that I like kids’ magazines and went to the trouble of sending them to me. I pass by Springview Park and decide to get out for a break. The memories of Mom taking me here when I was a kid wash over me. She would push me up and down on the swing, so high that I felt like I was flying. One time she taught me how to pump, and after that I could finally fly on my own. I once pumped a little too fast and fell off the swing. My mom kissed my scraped knee and told me to get right back on the swing, and not to be afraid. The park is empty at this time of day and I sit down on the black swing seat with the rusty chain and begin to swing back and forth as the warm breeze softly envelops me. I think about Sandra and Lenny, putting one foot in front of the other and doing what needs to be done. And I think of my Mom and how much I know she loved me. She wouldn’t have wanted me to stay stuck. She would have liked a nice, thoughtful guy like Dov. He deserves a chance. And so do I.
I reach into my purse for my phone and text Mrs. Gold before I lose my nerve. “Hi, I’m ready for Dov to call me directly. Can we plan for some time after Shabbos?” I hit Send and then scroll through my texts from Dena until I get to the contact card. There it is: Rena Klein, dating coach. It’s one foot in front of the other now. I know what I have to do.


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