Mrs. Israel, far more proper than anyone else in our building, many of us are would-be jugglers, she even carried a handbag matching her shoes, sometimes navy, sometimes black, never ever brown, Mrs. Israel, her hair from another time and world, although she would never say, exactly, where she was born, always polite, always vague, Mrs. Israel was the first to invite Eve and me into her apartment, for biscuits and tea.
We are both coffee types, though not tea adverse. I wanted to be a painter then and envisioned large canvases emblazoned with words. For a while, I even made some: cantaloupe, written in Indigo blue, one of my most successful canvases. Eve intended to be her version of Kim Stanley, an actress who could make any part her own. We worked, both of us, in any jobs we could. I was an Office Temp, tying my Big Hair into a semi-respectable knot.
Unfailingly polite, Mrs. Israel introduced herself in the elevator one day. She even shook our hands.
“You’re new,” she said. “Can you both come for tea this Saturday afternoon?”
Her voice was as clipped as an English grammar teacher. “Please do,” she added.
Our building, ungentrified Upper West Side Ramshackle, has a particular kind of illogical charm. The lobby looks a little like a well-lit subway stop, and the walls are a color that’s almost yellow. Old fashioned grey trim borders the hallways, mild effort at decoration.
Walking into Mrs. Israel’s apartment was an unexpected surprise. It’s always hard to tell what’s behind any door but a country cottage studio was not a logical option: floral drapes, a cabbage rose couch, painted china tea cups, porcelain tea pot for guests. First she shook our hands, as though we were at a reception, and she repeated her name for us to memorize: “Mrs. Israel.” No hint that a first name existed.
Although we had never made what might be called polite conversation before that afternoon, weather talk (she even raised the price of tomatoes – they’d been cheap once, and now they weren’t) there was something reassuring about the back and forth, simple sentences between neighbors.
“Tell me where you both were born,” she said.
“New England,” I replied.
“I’m a Southerner,” said Eve.
“Aha,” was all she answered.
“And you,” I asked. “What about you?”
“My parents,” she paused, maybe to be dramatic, “they came from Eastern Europe. A while ago,” she said. “But I was lucky enough to be born right here.”
“Where’s right here?” I asked. An innocent question, really.
“Near enough.” More than that she would not say.
Propriety seemed to be her predominant characteristic. Her hair was more than neat. It was an immovable helmet that looked painted on. Ageless, her body was hidden away by an actual navy suit. She even wore a pin on her lapel, a small tasteful flower. We were thrift store ironic. Not entirely unfamiliar.
We all sat awkwardly across from one another, a small table connecting us. She had matching sugar and creamer and tea pot, lightly flowered in yellow and pink. She poured with familiarity and grace. “I’ll tell you who I am, “ she said. “But gradually.
Don’t think I don’t have my secrets. I do.” She spoke softly.
This is the third installment of our first-ever serialized novel. For other installments, look for us on the web. For more on Esther Cohen, go to esthercohen.com