THEY CAME INTO MY CLASSROOM to arrest me, two polite police officers, male and female, burdened with the heavy accouterments of law enforcement—guns, walkie-talkies, night-sticks, sprays, flak-jackets. It was the woman officer who asked me to put my hands behind my back so that she could put on the handcuffs. Even while being compliant, it was hard not to tense with resistance. The only student to witness this scene was Jeffrey Millenberg, who had come in for extra help. As they led me out I said to Jeffrey (probably out of some desire to make everything appear normal), “There’s just no getting around memorization. There’s stuff in chemistry you just have to know.”
Jeffrey stared at me but even as the officers led me out of the classroom I nodded, to let him know that I knew he could do it.
I teach chemistry and biology. I had been at the same school for six years. I coached intramural basketball and led the monthly lunch-time music jams with my guitar, so I was pretty well known in the school. And rather liked, I believe, although I wasn’t one of those teachers who needed to be loved and affirmed by the kids. Although only Jeffrey was in the classroom, there were plenty of kids in the hall as the period was changing, not to mention teachers, and they all stared at me too. So did the kids smoking on the sidewalk, although Dan Reddin, a kid I almost failed last year although even though he was smart, called out, “What they bust ya for, Mr.B?” I couldn’t have answered even if I wanted to, for the officers kept me moving, right to the police cruiser where, just like on TV, one of them put a hand on my head to lower me into the back seat.
So my arrest would have been the talk of the school even if there hadn’t been a short article in the local section of the Star. “High School Teacher Charged with Assaulting Orthodox Jew.” The headline made me sound like some anti-Semite, although the article did state that the orthodox Jew was my cousin.
My first cousin Leonard, to be precise. Born the same year as me, also a youngest child, the son of my Auntie Doris. Lenny who lived on the same street three blocks away, whose birthday parties I attended, who I envied because his father, a retail distributor, was always bringing him the latest toys, although even then I suspected his house wasn’t as happy as my own. We didn’t see each other much after the age of eighteen or so, when he began to turn religious, but I would hear about him from my parents. How he now had a beard, how he wore baggy suits and tzitzis under his shirt, how he devoted all his free time to some small synagogue that my father said was “almost a cult.” We got married about the same time and sent each other invitations but neither of us went to the other’s wedding. His own bride, Zipporah, had been introduced to him by his rabbi; my father said it was probably arranged.
Lenny had five children but I didn’t know their names. My own kids, Josh and Leah, were nine and seven. I hoped to keep the arrest from them but Josh heard something at school so I had to sit them down and explain. I was living in a bachelor apartment near the house (Jennifer and I had been separated for four months) and sometimes they stayed over and slept on air mattresses on the floor, although mostly I would go to the house and take care of them there while their mother was out with her boyfriend.
“I’m very sorry to say that it’s true,” I said to Josh and Ella. We were sitting on the Ikea fold-out sofa that was my own bed. “It’s always wrong to hit somebody.”
“Did he deserve it?” Josh asked.
“Nobody deserves it. There’s always a better way.”
“I don’t want anyone to hit me,” Ella said.
“And nobody’s going to.”
“How do you know? Did your cousin know that you were going to hit him?”
He should have known, I wanted to say. But I wished that I hadn’t. I didn’t want my kids to have a father who hit people, or got arrested, or lost his job. It was enough that they didn’t understand why I had left the house.
What happened was that my Auntie Doris, a sweet and much-burdened woman, decided to hold a fortieth birthday party for her son, Rafe. Rafe is Lenny’s older brother. He is what we called mentally retarded growing up. As a boy I was told that Rafe’s air supply was momentarily cut off during birth and that if the doctor had been quicker, he would have been a normal, fully-functioning person. He grew up to speak with a thick tongue, and, it seemed to me when I was as a kid, childish in the way he said certain phrases over and over, “You’re fired!” being his favourite, or how he would poke a person with his finger and tell you the vacuum cleaner didn’t work, or the furnace, or the lawn mower, and that you should fix it right away. Later, I realized that he was frustrated, lonely, and possibly frightened. My father blamed my uncle Ben for not spending more time with him but instead running off to every convention he could, or staying at the club to play golf. Over the years Rafe went to different schools and later to special-skills workshops and group homes but he always came home again, to be taken care of by Auntie Doris.
I’d hardly seen anybody in my family since the problems in my marriage began—or more precisely, since pathetic me began to realize that something was wrong. I avoided family events so that I didn’t have to answer questions about Jennifer, and so I missed even my great uncle’s hundredth birthday. I did, however, go to his funeral shortly after, where no one thought to ask me anything.
When I finally saw that the marriage was lost I decided that it was time to get on with things. Besides, my mother begged me to come to Rafe’s party. Only she and my father knew I was living alone and my mother thought that the isolation was doing me harm. It seemed I needed a coming-out party.
My cousins still lived in their modest house off Senlac Rd. in North York, on a dead-end street that used to be noisy with kids but had grown silent. It was dark when I drove up in a leased car. Through the picture window I could see everyone mingling—uncles, cousins, nieces, nephews. A few wore paper hats, and balloons and crepe paper were taped to the walls. Under my arm was a present in store gift-wrapping, a shirt from the Gap. I took a deep breath, ran my hand through my hair, and practiced smiling as I went up the stairs.
Inside the door I smelled smoked meat, pickles, coffee. Auntie Doris was lining shoes up under a coat rack. “Michael! How good to see you. It’s been too long.”
I kissed her cheek. She was small like my mother and getting smaller with age. She wore a bright blue dress but looked tired. “I see it’s quite the party.”
“You know Rafe. He likes to see everyone. I’m sorry to see you’ve come without your lovely wife. And the kids. How is everyone?”
“They’re fine. Jennifer and I are separated. It’s not my night with the kids.”
“Oh, Michael.” She put her hand on my arm. “I’m so sorry. When did this happen?”
“A couple of months ago.”
“Your mother didn’t say a word. Is there any chance of patching things up? Don’t tell me, let me just hope. Come on in, Michael. Eat something. No wonder you look so thin. It’s good to see people who care about you at a time like this.”
“Thank you, Doris.” I took off my shoes and added my coat to the rack and went up the carpeted steps to the living room. A few people turned and for a moment I thought I might get sick. But then my mother came over and whispered that everything would be all right and my uncle’s business partner, Ned Rossoff, gave me a bone-crushing handshake and started to tell me a joke about a Jewish Buddhist and a gaggle of kids banged into me as they ran giggling through the room.
“Hey, it’s the birthday boy.” I clapped my hand on Rafe’s shoulder. His eyes shone with the excitement of the party. There was a bit of tissue stuck on his neck where he’d cut himself shaving. “I said, “You look good, Rafe. Is that a new blazer?”
“You know what the gardener did? He pulled out the rosebush. With the roots!”
“He wasn’t supposed to?”
“I told Mom he’s no good.”
“Here’s a little birthday something for you.”
“Put it over there,” he bellowed into my ear. “I’m getting a Coke.” I added my present to the tottering mound on the sideboard. When I turned back, my cousin Judy stood grinning at me.
“Howdy stranger,” she said.
“Hey, Judy. It’s been a while.”
“Still playing with puppets?”
Judy and I had been close growing up. Together we put on puppet shows for other kids’ birthday parties. But I rarely saw her now.
“Where are your adorable kids? And your adorable wife?”
“Jennifer and I are separated.”
“Crap. It’s like an epidemic these days. Are you surviving?”
“More or less. I didn’t want the kids to see everybody until they knew.”
“Yeah. Trust me, it gets better. All my friends say so. Just don’t let her take the kids away from you.”
“She’d never do that.”
“Dads don’t always feel entitled. Josh and Ella need you.”
“It’s good to be reminded.”
“Let’s go stuff our faces. It’ll do you good. Doris is the only person I know who still serves kishka.”
There’s never much drinking at one of my family’s events. Still, there’s always a bottle of Seagram’s among the oversized plastic missiles of Coke and Seven Up. When I made my way over, Rafe’s dad, Uncle Ben, handed me a shot glass from Disneyworld. “Have one,” he said. “It’ll put hair on your chest.” He always said that to me. I wasn’t sure if it was a good idea, given the state of my emotions, but I raised the glass and clinked it to his own. The stuff was pretty smooth.
“So Michael,” he said, “have you got a real job yet? I mean one that actually pays some decent money?”
He always said that to me, too. “Still considering my options, Ben.”
“You can always come work for me. At least relatives don’t steal. So where’s your wife? I don’t see that doll around here. She’s got a million-dollar smile, that one.”
“Doing all right, I think.”
“What a shame. But at least you can play more golf.”
“I don’t play golf.”
“Take it up. Also, the way women are these days, it’s easy to score. Back when I was single trying to have sex was like the siege of Leningrad. Except for Noreen Hochkiss.”
“I don’t think I want to hear.”
He filled my glass again. “The secret is to give the woman what she wants. That’s something else we never understood.”
Rafe stood on a chair and cupped his hands around his mouth. “Time to open up the presents!” He grabbed the box on top and tore off the wrapping. A 500-piece puzzle. Next was a cardigan. Then came a shirt (mine), another shirt, a book on animal life, a computer game. Each time he held it above his head for everyone to see.
Maybe it was the whisky, but for the first time in weeks I didn’t mind being around my family. These people had known me all my life. And on this cloud of good feeling I decided to float my way out. I found my parents to say goodbye, responding to my mother’s anxious look by giving her a kiss and saying that I’d bring the kids over for dinner on the weekend. In the hall I found my shoes and jacket and before anyone else could stop me I went out into the night air.
For a moment I stood on the porch, clearing my head and reveling in the feel of approaching summer. When school was over I would begin looking for a small house, not too far from their mother, with a room for each of them. We’d take a holiday, maybe a car-camping trip. The thought of it all scared and excited me both.
“Is that Michael?”
I knew the hardy voice, and the figure coming around from the side of the porch in a bulky coat and fedora. Lenny. As he came into the circle of light he looked a little heavier, his beard broader. I came down the steps and he gave me a hug, squeezing half the air out of me.
“You’re leaving already? I’m coming late from my Torah study group. You should come some time, it’s very philosophical. Remember those late-night discussions we used to have?”
“That was a long time ago. I hope everyone’s well. The kids.”
“Thank God, they’re thriving. But you’re leaving already? Come inside for another few minutes.”
“I really have to go. But it’s good to see you.”
“And your own? How’s Jennifer?”
I didn’t look away this time, but into Michael’s soft brown eyes. He had eyes like his mother and mine. “Actually, Jennifer and I separated a few months ago. We’re getting divorced.”
I heard the huff of his breath and felt a sting on the side of my cheek that shut my my eyes. A slap? Lenny had slapped me?
Shame on you,” he said quietly.
There are so many things I wish I had remembered at that moment. That Lenny’s own childhood had been less happy than my own. That his wife had suffered serious health problems for years. That his jewelry import business had been struggling. I wish I had been able to stop time and at least try and understand what he had done. But of course I couldn’t.
I hit him, a fist to the jaw. Knocked him backwards on his ass.
“Fuck off, Len.”
Trembling with rage, I stepped over him and walked to my car. Fumbled with the key, turned on the ignition, and pulled away. In my rear-view mirror I saw him slowly get up.
The only other time I’d tried to hit someone was at summer camp when I was eight. A kid named Kevin Edelstein stole the leopard frog that I had spent an hour catching in a stinking swamp. Kevin claimed that mine had escaped from its jar and that he had caught a different one. We rolled around on the ground—neither of us even threw a punch—before the counselor separated us.
I discovered that when the adrenaline leaves your body you feel weak and nauseous. My hands could hardly hold the steering wheel. My cell phone rang, my father’s name appearing on the screen. I didn’t pick up, nor when it rang three more times. I got back to my apartment and parked in the small back lot. The building was five stories without an elevator and I ran all the way up, gasping for air as I reached my door. In the bathroom I turned on the light and saw a faint hue still on my cheek. I drew a bath but instead of reading, I lay with my eyes closed. Then I crawled into bed.
When I awoke in the morning, there was a brief, blissful moment when I didn’t remember what had happened. But when I did, I tried not to feel so bad. After all, Lenny had slapped me, the prick. Who did he think he was, my father? God? In fact, he was three months younger than me, as if that somehow mattered. Naturally my conscience would nag at me for a while, and some of my relatives would express shock, but wouldn’t others still be on my side? And then the story would fade, if not entirely disappearing.
I was just leaving the house for school when my cell rang. I saw it was from the house, and thinking it one of the kids, I answered.
“Michael?” It was Jennifer. “What exactly is going on?”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” I said coldly.
Your parents called me. You hit your cousin Len?”
“I really don’t want to talk about this with you.”
“Jesus, Michael. You wouldn’t hit anybody. Maybe you should talk to a professional.”
“I’m hanging up.”
“Your cousin called the police.”
“That’s what your mother said.”
“I’ve got to leave for school. Don’t worry about me. I’m fine.”
I hung up without waiting for an answer. Then I walked to the subway and got on a crowded train. I held a strap and tried to read my book, a history of eighteenth century science, but I couldn’t concentrate. I was glad to get to school, where a couple of students were waiting for extra help. I taught my classes and then went to a science department meeting where I was gratefully bored. Everything was as it was supposed to be. The next day followed, and the next, and just as I became confident that things were going to be all right, the cops arrived.
They kept me for five hours, not in a cell but sitting on a bench in a hallway. Then they told me to get a lawyer and stay clear of Lenny and any of his immediate family, as if I might suddenly kidnap his children. The article in the Star appeared and two days later my teaching duties were suspended. My principal, Audrey Tatcheva, was a good egg and I didn’t blame her.
“I think you should say that you’ll never do it again,” Leah told me. “And then you can make your cousin a card.”
The incident did cause a rift in my family, with most of my relatives siding with Lenny. Doris wouldn’t talk to my mother, which hurt her, although she claimed not to care. My cousin Judy called to say she had a mind to go over and hit Lenny herself; maybe that would shake this religious superstition out of him. But I saw it differently. I didn’t understand Lenny’s faith or how he could live within the confines of such strict practice, but I did sense his genuine need for it. The same need, perhaps, that caused him to slap me.
My summer began early but, unsure of my professional future, I doubted my eligibility for a mortgage and had to put off looking for a house. I found myself avoiding most people I knew, whether they knew what had happened or not. I avoided going to the gym and went on long, solitary bike rides instead. I caught up on back issues of Scientific American and watched re-runs of The Antiques Roadshow. Of course I had my time with the girls, taking them to school and then day camp, cooking dinners, keeping playdates, visiting my parents.
In late July the divorce papers arrived by courier. I thought of phoning Jennifer to make sure she wanted to go ahead with it, and then I thought, what the hell, and signed. A few days later the three of us went on our camping trip to Killarney. It rained the first two days, but then the sun came out and everything more or less dried out. We caught five-inch long bass and sunfish and threw them back, went on nature walks, drove into the nearby town for hamburgers and a movie. We were going through the Narnia books, which my father had read to me, and at night we lay in our warm sleeping bags while I read another chapter of Voyage of the Dawn Treader. And then the light went out and all of us slept through till morning.
A trial date was set for February. That meant the charge wouldn’t be resolved until after Christmas, and the school would have to hire someone to teach my classes starting in September. I couldn’t but think this was another step towards losing my job, even though the union rep who came to see me swore up and down that they would argue for reinstatement. I didn’t feel that I had the strength to fight but I needed my job, for my kids, too. I had another meeting with the lawyer, who urged me to find a couple of character witnesses. He suggested again that I file a counter-suit; Lenny had slapped me first, and that, too, was assault. But I couldn’t do it.
With the divorce settled, Jennifer bought out my half of the house with the help of her parents and a larger mortgage of her own. My father said that he would co-sign a bank loan and that waiting for a house of my own wasn’t doing the kids any good. So I began to look and almost right away a house came up just ten blocks away, the modest middle home in an attached row of three. It had rather ugly mottled brick but it was well laid out, and when I took the kids to see it they immediately ran to their bedrooms without fighting over them. The sellers were eager to close as the woman had just been transferred to some job in Edmonton. Almost before we knew it, we were eating pizza on a new Ikea table and laughing about nothing at all, as if we were on holiday. The kids had new pets, a pair of guinea pigs that seemed to me as dumb as bricks but Josh and Leah loved them. Those first nights, with the kids in their beds, nightlights glowing, and me reading in my own, made me feel as if happiness was possible.
Labour day, last day of summer. The kids had gone off with Jennifer and left me on my own. A teacher friend invited me to a barbecue, but I didn’t think I could bear the chatter about a new school year, the recounting of first-day back dreams which all teachers have. Instead, I spent the day painting the girls’ rooms as I’d promised (blue for Josh and, yes, pink for Leah.) It took me the whole day and evening and I was tired and aching. I took a long shower, scrubbing paint off my skin, then fried up some eggs and home fries and took the plate out to the porch with a bottle of beer. Evening fell but I didn’t turn on the light but sat in the shadows nursing a second beer, watching the occasional car pull up and the kids spill up, the parents urging them to get ready for bed because they needed an early night. Somebody whistled the “Ode to Joy” as he walked by smoking a cigarette. And then the street was empty but for me and the occasional slinking cat.
A car turned the corner and pulled up. I recognized it as Lenny’s by the wire holding on the back fender. The door sprung open and he hauled himself out and looked up and down the sidewalk, no doubt unsure which was my house. Then he must have seen my outline in the dark as he came up to the bottom step.
“This is the new house?”
“I brought something.” I hadn’t noticed the paper bag in his hand. He fished inside it and pulled out one of those plastic honey containers shaped like a bear. He looked at it and then put it down on the step. “You know, it’s symbolic. So you’ll have a sweet life here.”
“That’s nice of you.”
“Can I come up?”
“I’m not sure that’s such a good idea.”
“Right. I’ll stay here. I shouldn’t have called the police. My mother didn’t want me to. I don’t know what I was thinking. Angry, I guess. But I wasn’t angry at you, Michael, not really. Everybody else in the family, they think I believe that I’ve got all the answers. But I don’t, it doesn’t work that way. Anyway, I told my lawyer that I wouldn’t testify. They’re going to drop the charges. I’m sorry for all the tsouris it caused, as if we don’t all have enough, eh? Okay then. Be well.”
He waved and I waved back and then he got in his car and drove away. I finished my beer and went inside.
Josh and Leah, thank goodness, both liked their teachers. I didn’t get to start teaching again until the end of September, when I discovered that my classes had learned almost nothing. A couple of other teachers seemed wary, but with everyone else nothing seemed to change. The kids stayed with me every other week but the two houses were so close they could walk over for visits, and Jennifer and I tried to be flexible and helpful to each other. We got to know our neighbours. The guinea pigs got fat. I made reservations to take the kids to Florida at Christmas to visit my parents, who wintered in West Palm Beach.
It was my mother who told me that Lenny’s wife’s health was deteriorating, and had been for some time but they had kept it quiet. I don’t know if that was behind his anger, although it’s possible. Angry at God, maybe, although that was probably simplistic. I realized then that Lenny’s slap had been something other than it seemed. That it had been a kind of reaching out.
I didn’t know if I should call about Zipporah, or if I’d be bothering them. So I called my mother in Florida for her opinion.
“Here’s my rule,” she said. “If I’m not sure whether to call or not, I always call.”
She’s good about this sort of thing, so I followed her advice.
“Hello?” Lenny said. Even in that one word, I could hear everything.
Cary Fagan‘s books include A Bird’s Eye (finalist for the Rogers Trust Fiction Prize), the story collection My Life Among the Apes (longlisted for the Giller Prize), and Valentine’s Fall (finalist for the Toronto Book Award). He is also writes books for children and recently received the Vicki Metcalf Award for Children’s Literature. Cary was born, raised, and still lives in Toronto.