The Joiner

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Ezra Olman

“Therefore shall a man leave his father and his mother, and shall cleave unto his wife: and they shall be one flesh.”

— Genesis 2:24

While Larry watches a rerun of Sanford and Son, Manny prays to God, trying to drown out the canned laughter with words of devotion. He concentrates so hard on not listening that he hears every joke, and a feeling that something needs to change surges through him and threatens to permanently lodge in his throat if he does not express it. But Manny says nothing. The time is not right. He returns to his prayers, and does not lose his concentration until Larry clears his throat in the way that means it is time for Manny to attend to some worldly duty.

At the first commercial break, Manny reaches into the cabinet above the sofa and pours his brother a glass of Diet Pepsi. Manny isn’t thirsty. At the second commercial break, Larry dumps a bag of nacho cheese tortilla chips into a serving bowl for the two of them; Manny looks at his watch, calculates how long it has been since Larry finished the last bagel dog, and pops a chip in his mouth. At the third commercial break, Larry stands up to stretch his legs, and Manny does the same. Larry zaps off the TV and Manny tucks his prayer book under his arm. In lockstep they head to bed. Larry is tired, Manny is not. But Manny does not protest. He knows there is no point. He knows tomorrow will be different.

The next day it is Manny’s call. They get up earlier than Larry would prefer. Larry shaves, but Manny, who has been working on developing a respectable beard for years, does not. Manny puts on a custom-fitted button-down shirt; Larry puts on an oversized T-shirt that he bought in Las Vegas. Manny puts a black suede yarmulke on his head; Larry gathers his long hair into a ponytail and does not put on a kippa. When they head out to the synagogue for morning prayers, Manny carries his tallis bag, and Larry carries a thick biography of Marilyn Monroe. After the prayers, Manny stays on at the synagogue to study Talmud with a partner for several hours. At midday they return home. Larry prepares lunch and dismisses Manny’s offer to help clean up afterward. In the corner of their living room, two computers are set up side by side. Manny sits at the one on the left and edits a journal dedicated to resolving ethical dilemmas within the boundaries of Jewish law. Larry sits at the one on the right and chats with a Norwegian divorcee in her mid-thirties who teaches botany, a subject Larry does not particularly care for. He is able to mask his lack of interest in her work with earnest questions and witticisms, and he is just about to coax her into emailing a photograph of herself when Manny announces it is time for afternoon prayers.

“Can’t it wait five minutes?” Larry asks.

“It cannot wait five minutes. As it is we’ll be lucky if we make it there in time.”

By the time they return from the synagogue and Larry logs back on, the Norwegian woman has left the chat room. Larry thinks of trying to track her down, but decides against it. He knows that the following day, Manny will need to respect his call, and then he will have ample time to find a woman with whom he perhaps has more in common.

The next day, Manny studies Talmud to the backdrop of Larry’s fingers pounding the keyboard like an angry rain. Manny dreads the days when it is not his call. He knows they are days that will demand a great effort on his part to yield spiritual nourishment. This is especially true when Larry chooses to sit in front of the computer all day, flirting online. Larry has a virtual black book of email addresses, each one representing a woman he has made dizzy with longing for him, but whom he never plans to meet.

“What a tease,” said Larry with disgust.

“Who’s a tease?”

“This woman I’m chatting with. She’s a tease.”

“How do you know it’s a ‘she,’ Lar? Maybe it’s a ‘he’ pretending to be a ‘she.’”

“You think I can’t tell when a man pretends to be a woman? They always slip up.”

“If you actually tried to meet one of these girls, you’d know for sure. Just make sure she’s Jewish.”

“Manny, mind your own business.”

It is a long-running debate between them how much to engage the world beyond their one-bedroom apartment. If it were up to Manny, they would not hide themselves all day. Manny loves to see new places. To him each outing is a chance to see yet another of God’s creations. But he knows Larry is not as willing to ignore the shocked stares and forgive the cruel remarks. That is how the call system came into being. Rather than bicker pointlessly, they each live the way they’d like half the time. Manny gets Friday night to Saturday night, Monday, Wednesday, and all Jewish holidays. Larry gets the rest. It’s not ideal, but it is an effective compromise. Manny wishes that he could share everything he has learned about getting along with others. But he knows how hard it is to get people to pay attention for the right reasons.

The following evening, Manny insists on making dinner even though it is not his turn. He presents Larry with a grilled steak and thick-cut french fries. He offers to let Larry put vinegar on his fries even though they both know it gives Manny heartburn.

“Okay, Manny. What do you want?”

Manny tells Larry to enjoy his food and asks him if he met anyone interesting today online.

“Like you care. Come on, Manny, just tell me what you want.”

“Can’t I just perform an act of kindness toward my brother for no reason?”

“Theoretically, the answer is yes. Now what do you want?”

Manny is ashamed of himself. He briefly considers stifling his request and presenting it later, but he realizes that Larry will always connect it to this unexpected culinary treat no matter how long he waits.

“I was thinking,” says Manny, “that I would like to start dating.”

“Oh yeah? Who’s the lucky girl? Ask her if she has a sister.”

“I’m being serious, Lar. I want to call a matchmaker. I want to get married.”

“OK, now I’m being serious too. No way in hell.”

A primal rage rises within Manny’s chest, and he tries hard not to let it escape. He has a well-rehearsed rant about Larry’s pathetic chats with phantom women, but he does not dare deliver it. Embarrassing Larry will not help anything. He reminds Larry that Chang and Eng Bunker both married and had 21 kids between them.

“Chang and Eng Bunker were professional circus freaks. You want to make any more comparisons between them and us?”

“I’m just pointing out that…”

“Just pointing out. No problem. Hey, I got an idea. I’ll call up Ralph DeMann and tell him we’re finally ready to grant him his interview. We’ll be stars on the freak show circuit. Imagine the ratings we’ll get in our TV debut. Maybe he’ll invite the bearded lady, too. And you can get it on with her backstage.”

“Do me a favor, all right? It’s Wednesday. Respect my call.”

“No way. I agreed to keep kosher in the house. I even agreed to that trip to Israel. But marriage is every second of your life, forever. So no, marriage is not your call.”

When Manny goes to bed that night, he tries to remain calm, but emotions overwhelm him until he is weeping freely. He hopes Larry will at least realize how upset he is, but Larry has his covers pulled over his head, as usual, and does not respond. Bitter hours pass as Manny thinks about what he might have to forego in order to bribe Larry into accepting marriage. He closes his eyes. As he starts to doze, a vision appears.

It was his twenty-first birthday. He and Larry were college students. Manny was not yet an observant Jew, though he already had a nagging suspicion that the pleasures trumpeted by popular culture were not quite authentic. That night was Larry’s call and he decreed that they would celebrate the way normal people celebrate – at the Diablo Bar and Grill, where college students crowded into brown and orange booths and drank pale beer from tall steins. They spent a lonely hour sitting in a booth adorned with painted cacti. Larry looked at his watch conspicuously from time to time as if to convey to the staring patrons that they had friends who should have joined them really just any minute now but for some reason hadn’t. Just as Manny was about to convince Larry that they’d be better off at home playing Risk, a woman glided into the seat across from them. She had shoulder-length brown hair. As she introduced herself to Manny a lock of it danced on her dimpled cheek; she flipped it back with a toss of her head so innocent that it could only drive Manny mad with yearning. But it was not Manny that Heather was interested in. She had once borrowed psychology class notes from Larry, and she remembered him, and Larry, don’t you remember me? Larry nodded, though Manny did not believe him. In college there was an abundance of a certain type who went out of their way to talk with them—or, as Larry liked to say, follow up on the freakstare—speaking with a false bonhomie and assumed familiarity usually reserved for children and the mentally deficient. Manny suspected she belonged to this genus, but Larry, feeling benevolent, claimed he remembered her as well. Heather sipped something turquoise out of a glass shaped like an upside-down sombrero. Larry smiled at her and she smiled back. At that age, Larry did not have the ponytail or the glasses, and as she laughed at something Larry whispered to her, Manny panicked and was for once grateful that they were biologically tethered so that Larry could not leave him behind. She leaned close and asked Larry if anyone had ever told him how adorable he was. Larry smiled only a little but Manny could feel Larry’s heart pounding as he looked into her soft eyes and thanked her for the compliment.

[Editor’s note: there is mild sexual content in this section]

Larry accepted her invitation to come up to her off-campus apartment for coffee, but once there she did not offer any. Manny, not wanting to be forgotten, asked her if she learned anything from her psych class. Heather laughed and told him he reminded her of her father, and Larry adjusted his posture in a way that told Manny that pain would follow if he continued with this line of questioning. She was not Larry’s type, Manny thought, but things were moving so fast, like in a B-movie he once saw where everyone was a hair’s breadth away from pulling off their clothes. Manny breathed hard as Heather ushered them into her bedroom. He wondered what exactly he was supposed to do so that he would not intrude on his brother’s privacy. But Heather winked at him just before she stripped, and the question was quashed under a wave of this-might-be-it anticipation. When she reached over Manny’s prone body to turn on a lamp, she let her nipple brush against his startled lips. When she pulled off Larry’s clothes she pulled off his as well. As she lay between them, her head resting in the seam that had connected the brothers since birth, she stroked Larry, and at the same time she stroked Manny until he imagined musket fire bursting forth from his loins. As they lay in stunned repose Heather curled her mouth into a fierce pout. Manny noticed and it only confirmed in his mind that she was, indeed, a goddess, but Larry saw something that caused him to bolt upright and nearly knock all three of them onto the floor.

“You b—-,” he said to her as he fumbled for his underwear. “What are you doing?”

Heather pulled a sheet to her chest and waved her free hand in denial, but at that moment two young men tumbled out of the walk-in closet opposite them, hooting in delight and shouting for an encore. Manny still heard the echo of their laughter as his eyes popped open. He waited for reassurance that he had imagined the whole thing, like a submerged man about to gulp sweet air, but in the end he could not deny that it was not a dream but a recollection, one which sullied his conscience and abandoned him to his shame.

For several days afterward, Manny hardly speaks. He hates to sulk but it’s the only way he knows to force Larry to cave in. He finds arguing with Larry exhausting and fruitless; his brother anticipates his arguments and thwarts them like Superman knotting a piece of steel. He has trouble making the case for marriage even to himself, though he has a vague sense that at age 38 it’s time for him to give more of himself to another. He cannot fathom how marriage might work. Yet at the same time he does not know how much longer he can bear feeling so constricted within his shared body. He dreams of rushing out the door into the sunlight, turning cartwheels on the sidewalk and announcing to the world that he is ready to love the first woman who will love him back.

For three days, Larry lets Manny’s sullenness pass without comment. On Sunday afternoon Larry offers Manny the call for a few hours to cheer him up, even though this is when Larry watches football on TV. Manny shakes his head.

“Manny, you can’t hate me just because I disagree with you. That isn’t fair.”

Manny turns his head away. “Hate you? Can the left hand hate the right hand? It makes no sense.” He wishes he could dig inside his brother’s brain and scoop out the memories.

Larry sighs and watches the first five minutes of a game. The team in black scores a touchdown and Larry whistles in appreciation as the replay shows the scoring from seven different angles. “Did you see that pass, Manny?” says Larry as the TV cuts to a commercial. Manny does not answer. Larry dumps a bag of hard pretzels into a plastic bowl. “I get veto power. Do you understand? I will cast a full, absolute, binding veto if I don’t like her.”

Manny grabs his brother in a headlock with one arm and pumps a fist into the air with the other. “Lar, you’re the best. She’s going to change everything, you’ll see.”

“Manny, that’s exactly what I don’t want. Now stop hugging me before I change my mind.”

“Where, um, exactly, are you connected?”

The matchmaker has an excellent reputation, an unparalleled rate of success. She is a miracle worker, claims Manny’s Talmud study partner. “Not,” he adds, “that you need a miracle.” Manny is placing one of his greatest wishes in her hands, so he grips the phone tight and forces himself to be as forthcoming as he can stand.

“We’re joined from the waist to the lower breastbone. Medically we’re known as Omphalopagus twins.”

“I see. Couldn’t they have separated you two at birth?”

“Not without endangering our lives. We have joint custody of some pretty important organs.”

“I see.” Manny pictures her scribbling notes onto a form with his name across the top.

“Now tell me, were you raised in a religious home?”

Manny squeezes the receiver even tighter. “Well, no. My parents were very nice people, not religious. I became observant when I was in my twenties.”

“I see.”

What must she think of him? Manny decides to go down fighting.

“But I’ve studied lots of Talmud. In fact, I’ve learned every tractate at least once. I also edit a journal on Jewish ethics. I guess you could say I’m trying to make up for lost time.”

He offers up a chuckle to show his fun-loving side, but he isn’t sure how it translates over the phone.

“I see. Now, what kind of woman are you looking for?”

Manny had planned to say that he’ll take anyone that will have him, but he thinks better of it. All he needs is for the matchmaker to think he has a self-esteem problem along with his other baggage.

“She should be kind, God-fearing, and preferably pleasant to look at.”

“I see.” Another pause for scribbling. “Manny, I will tell it to you straight, because after 30 years in the business I have learned that the truth is the best policy, even if it sometimes can be painful. I make no promises in your case. As I’m sure you can imagine, your circumstances will disqualify many of my brides-to-be. But you seem like a nice enough man. I’ll see what I can cook up for you.”

“That’s all I ask,” says Manny. He puts down the phone and Larry turns the TV volume back up. He leans back and wedges his head between the sofa cushions, spent from the effort of revealing so much of himself to a stranger.

Three weeks pass without a word from the matchmaker, and in that time Manny steels himself against rejection by telling himself that she will never call. Knowing that he has done all he can gives Manny some satisfaction; Larry tells Manny that he seems happier now than he has in months. Learning Talmud and editing his journal, he works hard at being positive. He chalks up his lack of marital prospects to God’s will. (“God always answers our prayers,” he remembers a rabbi once telling him, “but sometimes the answer is ‘No.’”) So he is not a bit prepared when the matchmaker phones as he and Larry are about to step into the shower. She tells him that she has someone who is just, just right for him, and the matchmaker is so, so, so excited she might die, God forbid.

“That’s great,” Manny says. “What’s her name?”

“Her name is Pessia. She’s 32, never married, slim. Just a wonderful soul.”

“Pessia.” Manny relays the information to his brother, eager to try out the description of the woman he might marry. “A wonderful soul.”

The matchmaker waits for him to say he’ll call her and tells him that for the sake of modesty he should invite her to a public place so they won’t be by themselves. Manny agrees, leaving out that he has never been alone in his life, not even for a moment. He allows himself to work over the idea that there is a woman who is open to loving him. The prospect of escaping the all-or-nothing world of the call buoys him. It reminds him of the time they went swimming after hours at the Jewish Community Center and he felt the lightness of his body enveloped in water, nothing tugging him downward, nothing tugging him to the right. Manny steps into the shower as Larry towels off and closes the shower curtain as far as it will go.

“So the matchmaker says she’s a wonderful soul,” says Larry, breaking the silence of a morning walk to the synagogue. “She must be hideous.”

“She may end up my wife, so you should choose your words carefully.”

“Hey, I’m just a bit concerned. I have to look at her too, you know.”

“Why assume she’s ugly?”

“You know how it works. Do I have to spell it out?”

Manny shakes his head. He has heard Larry’s theory before: damaged goods are paired off with equally damaged goods. An advanced Torah scholar might get bumped up a rung, but no more. The only exception is made for those born to a distinguished family, in which case you get to marry whomever you want no matter how screwed up you are.

“Bottom line,” says Larry, “you can be as learned and as good-hearted as you please, if you’re a freak you get the runt of the litter.”

“There are no runts in God’s litter.”

“You know what I mean.”

“Lar, I don’t know where you get this from.”

“Where do you think I’ve been all these years? I’ve seen what you’ve seen and sometimes more. I know exactly what’s going on.”

“Well, I think the system makes sense. Do you really think someone like me should marry a woman who looks like a model? Would that really be a good idea?”

“Works for me.”

They climb the stairs to the synagogue entrance. As they shake off their coats Manny is already formulating a silent prayer that God should endow Pessia with sufficient patience to handle what awaits her.

After Manny rules out the greasy pizza shops and the falafel/shawarma joints that stream Israeli music at full volume, only one kosher restaurant is left standing. Bathsheva’s Banquet is not as posh as its prices suggest, but it is elegant enough for a first date. This is where he has arranged to meet Pessia. He pictures ordering an appetizer, lightening thing up with a bit of small talk (Larry has convinced him that this is necessary) and then seeing if their life goals are compatible. Maybe one date is all it will take. Manny has heard stories like this. At six in the evening he is seated at a reserved corner table. A few minutes later he decides to stand near the door so that Pessia cannot fail to see them, and he must remind Larry twice that it is his call before Larry accedes. For long minutes they withstand freakstares as well as a man who approaches, sees them, and ushers his wife and kids back into the car. A few minutes later, just as he is remembering to straighten his posture, he sees a woman in a long skirt approaching. Something about her gait is uneven; Manny watches how she swings her right leg and suspects she has a clubfoot. He tries to stifle his disappointment by thinking that he would not want others to judge him on appearances either. She tries to show a pleasant smile but when she sees them from a distance Manny cannot help but notice the rush of panic, the look he knows so well, as if she has just been asked to identify a corpse. She’s freakstaring, says Larry through his teeth, but Manny ignores him and tells himself that she’s probably just nervous like any other girl.

“I’m Manny,” he offers so that she does not have to guess. “And this is Larry.”

“I’m Pessia,” she says, taking a step back. “Nice to meet you both.”

“It’s okay, we don’t bite,” says Larry.

“I know.” She takes a deep breath. “It’s just … I guess I’ve never really seen Siamese twins before.”

Before Manny can tell her it’s quite alright and not to worry, Larry informs her that they prefer the term “conjoined,” not “Siamese.” “Not that we have anything against the fine people of Thailand,” he adds.

“Conjoined. Got it.”

The maitre d’ shepherds them to their table. As she drapes her coat over the back of an unoccupied chair, Manny looks her over. The clubfoot is forgotten, usurped in Manny’s mind by a constellation of acne scars that a stratum of makeup fails to mask. Again he is angry with himself. What is wrong with him? Pathetic, he tells himself. He will look beyond what he sees. He asks her what she would like to drink. She wants only water, which he interprets as a positive sign. She is thrifty. Low maintenance. Sensible.

He tries to remember his talking points. The only ones that spring to mind are the heavy topics Larry warned him to avoid. Images race through his brain, none of them helpful. He feels the silence threatening to do him harm.

“So what do you do all day?” he asks, and immediately knows Larry will torment him with that line all week.

“I work as a dental assistant.”

“Really. How is that?”

“Pretty terrible, actually. No one wants to be there. It’s depressing.”

“Well, what would you like to be doing instead?”

Pessia thought it over. “Making cookies,” she said. “I would make the gooiest cookies and everyone would line up to buy them.”

“You’d keep the dentist chairs filled. Maybe they’d help you start up your business.”

“Maybe. More likely, they’d run me out of town.”

He tells her about his learning and the journal. He explains the call system. He is surprised by how often she laughs at his jokes. She chews with her mouth closed and eats with such dignity that it makes him conscious of his own table manners, which Larry has recently described as shocking. But he has been practicing, and he thinks he is doing okay. She looks him in the eye and does not flinch. For a liberating instant, he dares to imagine that he is more than half of a duo. He has never met anyone before who has been curious about him for the right reasons. When she says that it must be nice to have company all the time and to never be lonely, he fights back the urge to laugh with incredulity. He thinks of how lonely he has been, suffering a solitude that he cannot begin to explain. But her smile is warm, and by the time they have finished their appetizer he can see nothing but a woman with a kind heart.

“Dad! The two-headed monster stabbed me.”

Manny turns around as far as he can. At the table behind them a blond boy of about eight is curling his lower lip into a scowl. His father leans over and asks who exactly did what.

Without hesitation the boy raises his forearm, revealing four raised dots. “The side with the ponytail, it stabbed me with a fork.”

“He did what?” The father takes a closer look at his son’s arm.

“And did you say something to him?”

“No. I just wanted to see if I pulled its ponytail the other head would notice.”

Father stands up for a deliberate instant before approaching Manny’s table. He fixes an extended freakstare at them, then notices that Pessia is with them.

“Pessia, so nice to see you outside the office.” Pessia pushes up a faint smile. “These gentlemen are friends of yours?”

Pessia looks as if she has been asked to walk the plank. “Yeah. This is Manny Blumberg,” she says, chopping a spindly hand in his direction. “And this,” she says with another hand chop, “is Larry Blumberg.”

The father’s stare flits between the twins, unsure of which head to address. “My son is claiming you stabbed him with a fork.”

Manny looks up while Larry continues to eat. It is high school all over again. Larry, accused of plagiarism on a term paper, melds into his brother’s body, leaving Manny to catch flak and speak on his behalf like a channeler of spirits.

“Perhaps there’s been a misunderstanding,” Manny says, as if suggesting it could make it so.

“There’s no mistake. Look, I know my son can sometimes do unkind things, but he’s just curious, really. Certainly you can cut him some slack.”

“That’s why I didn’t use a knife,” says Larry. He downs a forkful of mashed potatoes and wipes the corners of his mouth with a burgundy napkin.

“I cannot believe this,” says Pessia.

“He’s just playing,” says Manny. “Lar, tell everyone you’re just playing.”

Larry focuses on dicing a strip of chicken breast, and again Manny is pressed into duty.

“He’s really just playing,” Manny tells Pessia. But Manny can already feel her receding, as surely as the day that follows night always reverts to a state of darkness.

The brothers sit in front of the TV, as they do whenever Larry’s call coincides with prime time. Even in rejection, Manny reasons, there is normalcy, a sense of belonging to the fraternity of men whose love for a woman has gone unrequited. There will be others, he tells himself. The blunt matchmaker who has told him that his brother is a liability that cannot be overlooked—she is not the only matchmaker in town. Nor is Pessia the only eligible lady. He can take comfort in the system. The matchmaker serves as a buffer. And the woman who has spurned him will not be part of his life. He will not have to face her at the water cooler or the local bar the next day like in the secular world. He will persist. He will develop a thick skin. He will look this challenge in the eye and swallow it whole.

Comforted by these thoughts, it takes several grunts from Larry before Manny catches on that the first commercial has started, and that he has not yet poured the cheese doodles into a bowl.

Ezra Olman's debut short story collection, The Attempted Destruction of Herr Neumann, in which "The Joiner" appears, was published in October 2015 and can be purchased here. His fiction has also appeared in Maggid: A Journal of Jewish Literature;; Elysian Fields Quarterly, and other publications. Originally from Baltimore, he lives in Israel with his wife and their four children.