LETTER TO A STRANGER: A PARK BENCH, NEW YORK CITY
BY AVIYA KUSHNER
It was the second day of Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, and I was doing it differently than I ever had before: I checked into a hotel in midtown Manhattan, and anonymously went to synagogue in the morning and art galleries in the afternoon. It had been a long year; I had suffered a brain injury, lost the ability to read and recently regained it, and was seeing the entire world again. It felt strange, transgressive, to be able to make out letters. I had crossed from the land of the illiterate back to the land of the literate, and I was lost.
On that second day I walked to Chelsea alone and did my own kind of praying in front of huge canvases painted by a pregnant woman from Brazil. I was bone-tired, still sleeping way too much after a hit to my brain, and I tried to ignore what my grandfather’s neighbor liked to say: whoever sleeps on Rosh Hashanah, his luck sleeps too. The park beckoned. A compromise: a rest, not sleep. I stopped and took off my heels.
That’s when you walked in, wheeling a grocery cart. There were only two benches, and you sat on the other. You had thick, white hair, and were clearly old—but you didn’t look defeated by life. For a few minutes we watched the birds. I wondered if I should wish you a happy New Year, but I wasn’t sure if you were Jewish. “Good afternoon,” I settled on, finally.
You asked me if I had gone to synagogue that morning. “I did and I left,” I said, and you laughed and told me you did not go at all. You pointed to a church across the street and said that it was a synagogue now, hosting services, but you were done being involved with communities and went shopping, waving your hand toward your cart. You were ninety years old.
“What do you do?” you wanted to know. “Nowadays all the girls do something. It wasn’t like that when I was your age.”
“I write,” I said wearily. I wondered if I should tell you I was worried I would never write again. “And I teach.”
“Well then, you would understand this. I won a scholarship in a contest judged by W.H. Auden, ” you said, “but I had to give it back.”
“Really?” I said. “Why?”
You explained that your father died young and your mother could barely support the family. The poetry scholarship was for tuition and not living expenses—certainly not your mother’s living expenses. Who would support her? No one, that’s who. You wrote Auden a letter and thanked him, but turned the offer down.
Instead you worked in a factory owned by a family of German Jews during WWII. There were two sisters who worked there, from the owner’s family, with long stringy hair that covered their faces, and they seemed impossibly old to you, even though they were only in their early forties. You were eighteen. The men they were engaged to were killed in the First World War, and after that they were spinsters.
You were terrified that you too would be left man-less after a war ended, so you corresponded with your high school boyfriend even though you didn’t love him. “He was interested in me for sexual reasons,” you said. I thought about asking what “sexual reasons” were when you said, “I think he liked my breasts.”
You married the high-school boyfriend, but he did not understand the poetry part of you. You had three children. You couldn’t take it anymore, got divorced. You were forty-five, sure your marrying days were over. You joined two groups–Zionist singles and Parents without Partners. “The Zionists were all attached to their mothers,” you said.
At Parents without Partners you met an elegant, wealthy man who read a lot and had a beautiful apartment on Fifth Avenue. Slowly you realized he was not like other men. “He was gay,” you said. “We didn’t know such things in those days. But I realized he did not want me sexually.”
So you left him and worked as a secretary and one day when you were wearing your grey dress you saw the president of the university waiting for an elevator with his assistant and you said, “What an honor to be your assistant.” Months later he tracked you down and hired you to be his assistant; “all because I said something in the elevator.” Even though you did not have a degree you made fifty thousand dollars a year and bought the co-op—you pointed to it—where you still live.
Then you returned to Parents without Partners, where a man ten years younger approached. He persisted, said if you dated him he would make you happy. You agreed to try. Then he promised if you married him, he would make you happy, and that’s what happened. “The happiest twenty years of my life.” Then he died.
Somehow all this soothed me, made me think that the year ahead would be full of good surprises. My luck would not sleep. After all, you had survived the post-World War II man shortage, and had made it through two wrong guys and one right guy. I had survived severe post-concussion syndrome, and my brain had made it through its own war.
I would be okay, I realized. But you were still talking. And still fending men off.
Now a retired military man—younger, in his early eighties—wants to take you out. You met when you let him stay in your two-bedroom co-op when he came to visit his sister, your neighbor, who doesn’t have an extra bedroom. He was so grateful that he kept calling.
“What do you think, should I give him a chance?” you asked.
Of course I said, “Of course.”
You wrote down your name and number and told me I should stay with you sometime, right there across the street, and to my eternal regret, I cannot find the piece of paper.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Aviya Kushner is the author of The Grammar of God: A Journey into the Words and Worlds of the Bible (Spiegel & Grau / Random House), a 2015 National Jewish Book Award finalist, 2016 Sami Rohr Prize finalist, and one of Publishers' Weekly's Top 10 Religion Stories of 2015. She is the language columnist at The Forward, and an associate professor at Columbia College Chicago, where she teaches creative writing and translation. She is a 2016-17 Howard Foundation Fellow in nonfiction. She almost died in Murdo, South Dakota—but experienced the greatest personality change on New York's own Wall Street.
Photo by John Mabbitt.